News

Juneteenth

Rev. Dr. John Jones – Associate Regional Minister of Education

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” – Romans 12:15

I first heard of “Juneteenth” back in the late 80’s and early 90’s in Atlanta. I didn’t understand the historical significance of the celebration at the time. I only recognized that it was a big deal because of the participation and the impact it had on the city.

In 2021, Juneteenth (officially Juneteenth National Independence Day) was recognized as a federal holiday. It is celebrated annually on June 19 (June + nineteenth = Juneteenth). What exactly is celebrated on that day?

On June 19, 1865, enslaved African-Americans in Galveston, Texas, received word of their emancipation. A formal decree liberated all slaves who remained in bondage two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect and two months after the Civil War had ended at Appomattox. The delay was not entirely attributable to slow communications. The reality of freedom had to be enforced by 2000 Federal troops led by General Gordon Granger.

I’m so grateful that we have this new national holiday. It writes into the calendar the true history of this country that is being denied in so many circles these days. Juneteenth celebrates the legal end of a national sin. But sin being sin, the consequences and fruit of that sin continue. The structures and institutions that make up U.S. culture would not be what they are today without that sin.

White supremacy is a slippery and powerful foe that privileges some at the expense of others. It resists exposure to preserve the status quo.  Juneteenth is a step in the direction of truth-telling. What we celebrate would not have been possible without identifying white supremacy, so our culture must tell the truth about itself.

It is a celebration that Christians in the U.S. should wholeheartedly embrace, and not just to comply with Paul’s command from Romans quoted above. This holiday exemplifies an important aspect of our faith.

There is the “already/not yet” aspect of the celebration. As Christians, we know that our salvation is here already, but not yet here in fullness. We continue to participate with what God is doing to bring freedom into the world. Here we celebrate justice, healing and freedom for those who have those honored the least.

I’m also invited to celebrate freedom and liberation, even liberation from the structures and institutions that I benefit from. Grace is hope for the past. It doesn’t erase the past. Nor does it undo the damage of the past. It can bring hope for further liberation as we celebrate this history.

I hope you have a blessed and reflective Juneteenth.

Celebrate Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Island Heritage Month

Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell – Regional Executive Minister

May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Island Heritage Month, when we recognize and honor the accomplishments of Asian Americans and those from Hawaii and the Pacific Islands in the United States. The reason we have different heritage months is to recognize and expand everyone’s knowledge and understanding of history and contributions to the United States beyond European American history, which much of our history books have focused on.

This month, I would like to honor a true “saint” of the American Baptist Churches: Yosh Nakagawa. Yosh was born in 1932 and lived in Seattle with his parents, and they were members of Japanese Baptist Church. However, during World War II, Yosh and his family were taken, along with other Japanese immigrants, to be imprisoned at the Minidoka Concentration Camp in Idaho. Once freed from Minidoka, Yosh returned to Seattle. He eventually went to Linfield College, my alma mater and an American Baptist college, for a year and then graduated from the University of Washington.

In Yosh’s own words, “When my country turned on me, the church stood beside me.” Yosh and the other Japanese families and individuals imprisoned at Minidoka were ministered to by American Baptist Home Mission Societies missionaries. In later years, Yosh served as vice-president of the American Baptist Churches USA. You can read his own words here.

I had the pleasure of meeting Yosh when I served as a pastor in the Seattle area. Yosh was involved in the Evergreen Baptist Association, the ABC region for Seattle and other areas on the West Coast. He once shared about the founding of Japanese Baptist Church in Seattle, his home church: in the beginning, all the members of Japanese Baptist Church were not Christian. They were all Buddhist. Through the love and ministry and acceptance of the Baptists in Seattle, they came to know Christ.

Racism and hate toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders has been on the rise, as are other forms of hate, and this month we raise awareness to end discrimination and violence toward Asian Americans. Executive Order 9066 was issued 82 years ago against Japanese Americans simply because they were Japanese. Nonetheless, Yosh was a lifelong advocate for justice and peace. He was a faithful reminder of how the church can stand against the world when the world is unjust. Together we can overcome adversity through the love of Christ and accepting one another as American Baptists. Celebrate and learn more here.

Rule of Life

By: Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell, Regional Executive Minister

I’m writing this article a few days after the snow, which is all gone now, and the grass is an incredibly bright green. Spring is here! New life abounds! Christ is Risen, indeed!

And yet, by the time you read this, you’ll probably already be back to work or school or your daily life. We celebrate Easter every year, and then go right back to mundane things. The only difference is you might’ve put away your winter boots and, if you grew up in a certain era, now you can wear white shoes.

The fashion rule about wearing white shoes in the summer only seems mystifying to us now, but it was a rule because you didn’t want to get mud on white shoes. White shoes were also associated with being upper class. It was seen as proper to not wear them between Labor Day and Easter. But it is something that was entirely made up.

We are reminded that as human beings most of the “rules” we have are entirely made up, and especially in church. Rules about whether we light candles at the beginning of the service or not. Rules about when to stand, or what order things should happen in the service. Rules about what to wear—or what should not be worn. Sometimes we justify these as a way to honor God and give God our best, but in doing so, sometimes we unnecessarily and unknowingly create boundaries between rich and poor, between one generation and another, between abled and disabled.

In Christian history there have been monastic movements that use a “Rule of Life.” In our time this has been adapted into the idea of a personal rule of life, a set of practices and rhythms one sets in their life with a schedule, such as morning, noon, and evening, to ground themselves in spiritual practice and connection with God. This is a rule that people make a conscious decision to willingly follow the rule they have crafted. This is different than the “rules” made for worship, that sometimes we don’t understand the origins of, or that have been imposed on us. This is a rule that a believer makes and chooses to follow in order to draw closer to God.

April is Earth Month, with Earth Day April 22. The earth reveals to us the way of God, that in death there is resurrection. Every spring, new life rises. In the darkest of winter, the light will return. On the coldest of days, we know that it will warm again. This is the rule of life established by God—the revolution of our earth around the sun. One way we participate in God’s rule of life is recognizing the gift of the earth to us and caring for creation, as established in Genesis 1—that humankind should have dominion over the earth the way God has dominion over us.

We had a mild winter this year, save for the snowstorm in January and the week of cold temps after, we did not have nearly the snow we usually do. It turns out that this past February was the hottest February on record. This ought to be a wake-up call, as we have had several in recent years, that the climate is changing due to human impact, and we must change our ways.

As we enter this springtime, I am reminded that while we say from Scripture that God never changes, everything we know about God is always changing and growing. We do not stay the same. Something we cannot change is the turning of seasons. Nonetheless, we know more now than we did fifty-four years ago when Earth Day was established about our impact on the earth. We know that climate change is real. We understand that our way of life as human beings impacts other creatures and all of God’s creation.

So perhaps instead of rules such as when to wear white shoes, in faithfulness to God, we ought to craft an intentional rule of life that centers creation care. From Genesis 1, we know that God’s intention for us was to care for the earth. This is the first commandment of God to all of humanity.

This Easter season, as we give thanks to God for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, that we have eternal life in Him, we are also reminded that the earth is God’s give to us. Far too often as Christians we have focused on life after death and not life now. 95% of the Gospels focus on Jesus’s life before his death. Life here is important and precious. We must ensure that the new life we are seeing that begins now—the trees budding, the flowers growing, the birds beginning to migrate back north and the deer feeding in the dawn—that all of this is precious to God, and we must care for it, for God, for us, and for future generations. Craft a rule of life that not only gives glory to God, but helps you live into God’s created intention by caring for our planet. Reducing what we use, reusing when we can, and recycling when possible all help care for the beauty of the earth.

Fearless

Rev. Carolyn Dugan – Associate Regional Minister of Outdoor Ministries

“fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

– Isaiah 41:10, ESV

In my job as a Corporate Trainer, we do a lot of icebreakers and I think about the group I am working with to pick the best question. One question I tend to stay away from is “what are you afraid of?” Sometimes people stay at a high level and say things like spiders, the dark or heights. Sometimes people go a little deeper and will say things like interviewing for a new position, trying a new hobby or picking the wrong vacation destination. Then, there are people that go for it and share that they are afraid people won’t remember them after they die, or they are afraid of making a big life change that will affect their families. It is admirable that they are willing to be comfortable sharing their thoughts, but in this work situation, people don’t always know how to respond. In Isaiah, we have God declaring to the Israelites, to not be afraid. Don’t be afraid like the pagans in verses 5 and 6 – those who don’t know God and look to idols for their comfort.

This summer for our Camp Tamarack programming we are asking our Pastors to explore this idea that the Bible tells us to not be afraid 365 times in various ways – enough for every day of the year. (I know this is a leap year, but I think we can trust that God will still be there on that extra day too) Each of us has so many things coming at us that cause fear, worry and anxiety in this world. We want to explore how living as a Christian and sharing our fears may still be uncomfortable, but also healthy as we recognize the ways God is with us and upholding us.

Sometimes it is easier to hold on to the fears we know and are comfortable with versus letting God strengthen us and help us – by hearing a kind word, by finding something in scripture, connecting with a song, having a trusted group of friends and family that you can confide in, finding a professional that can support you in deeper ways and various ideas in between.

Every year as we get ready for camp registration, I am always afraid we aren’t going to have any campers, or leaders, or staff, or that something else may happen, but also every year, God is with me, and God is good.

Whatever your fear, your concern, your anxiety – may you be able to name it in a healthy way and find a path to not be afraid.

Slow Down

Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell, Regional Executive Minister

Slow Down

If you don’t know today’s textspeak TL;DR, that means “Too Long; Didn’t Read,” and usually is followed by a summary.

The TL;DR summary of this piece is, “Slow Down.”

TL;DR is a product of our fast-paced, soundbite attention-splatter world that we are in. It’s often used at the beginning of an email or a blog post or Facebook message to indicate that the writer understands many readers may not have time to read the long message below. Because we don’t have time anymore. We don’t have time to really hear how someone is doing when we ask, “How are you?” and they give any other answer than, “Fine” or “Good.” We don’t have time to read someone else’s pain or heartache or joy or excitement because we are focused on our own lives and the burdens we are carrying and trying to get from one busy moment to the next.

Sometimes, in the church, we are so busy doing the business of the church that we miss what is really going on. We’re more concerned about the budget deficit than a whole family out sick with COVID. We’re more worried about the declining attendance on Sunday than the split caregiving many adults are facing with children and aging parents. We focus on the wrong things: gimmicks to try to get people back into church. Guilt trips to receive more money in the offering plate. We managed to make the leap in the early days of the pandemic (now four years ago!) to streaming worship online, but never fully explored how to use our new online tools for ministry, except as a way to send our own soundbites and sometimes try to encourage people to worship in-person instead of finding new ways to meet people where they are at. We are guilty of being in a TL;DR world because we haven’t slowed down.

In the last few months, I have had the gift of being able to go on retreat at Holy Wisdom Monastery outside of Madison. It is an ecumenical monastery in the Benedictine tradition. The four sisters and the gathered community meet for prayer three times a day: morning, midday, and evening. They follow a set liturgy, and the scriptures, prayers, and readings are read slowly, with intention. The first time I visited, I found myself rushing ahead. Reading a bit faster, the way we sometimes do during Sunday worship. But as I spent more time at the monastery, I recognized what I was missing. In slowing down, each word had a moment to sink in. I could focus on the fact that I was reading words written for me to know God. I was praying and in conversation with God. I was not focused on the next task or the next thing to do, because I was on retreat, and this was my purpose.

What if we made every Sunday like that? A moment when the only purpose is to be in worship of God. To slow down and listen, read, pray, breathe. Far too often on Sundays we may be focused on the next thing to do: grocery shopping, laundry, getting ready for the school or work week, dinner planning. We may even start checking our watch more frequently as the sermon goes on. Preachers sometimes start preaching faster or say, “One more thing and I’m done.” But what if we could slow down?

It may be countercultural, radical, even revolutionary to slow down and savor the moment we are in. To take a deep breath and hold it. The word ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek both mean “breath, wind, and spirit.”  Take a few minutes right now and breathe deeply. Breathe in all the good air that God has given us, the spirit of God within us. Breathe out in gratitude.

Take a few minutes, every day, to read Scripture, but don’t just read it to get through it. Maybe just read one verse, and read it slowly, three times. Let the words sink in. Think about how this was written down for you to know God’s love.

Take a few minutes, and ask someone, “How are you doing?” and listen. Ask more questions. “How are you really doing? How is your family? How is work? What is something that brought you joy today? What makes you sad?” Be present with the other person.

Take a few minutes and ask yourself, “How am I doing today?” Listen to your body: what hurts? What is sore? What needs do you have to slow down and care for yourself? Listen to your mind: what thoughts weigh heavy? What concerns matter to you? Maybe write them down in a journal. Listen to your heart: who is close to you, right now? Who are you grieving? Who do you miss? Who is someone you can always pick up the phone and call? Consider each person, consider your feelings. Create some art or write a letter or a text (even if it’s short, take a few minutes to consider your words!)

Slow down. Take your time to read. Take your time to listen. Stop and smell the flowers, or the grass after the rain. Touch the bark on the trees outside.

Arrive to church early. Take your time to listen to the musicians prepare. Greet the greeters! Pray for those whom you do not see and follow up by calling them or writing a note later.

Take time to remember why you come to church and why you are at this particular church. Let go of the worries about attendance or tithes, and instead, remember the gift of being able to worship God together. Listen to the music, let the words sink in. Write down the scriptures and even if it’s read a bit too fast in the service, come back to it later. Take time in prayer to listen for those concerns and listen to your own heart.

Take your time and slow down, and remember who you are. You are a whole person. You are a gift from God. You are God’s beloved.

Celebrating Women in Ministry – 2024

Rev. Dr. John Jones – Associate Regional Minister of Education

“Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice.” ~Proverbs 1:20

March is Women’s History Month in the United States, allowing the opportunity to acknowledge the historical contributions of women in the US. On March 8, many countries around the world will celebrate International Women’s Day. These intentional efforts seek to highlight the stories, voices, achievements, and histories of women, something sorely needed in our world today.

When I’m teaching the doctrine of God in my theology class, I love pointing out the numerous feminine images of God from scripture: a mother eagle in Deuteronomy 32, a woman in labor in Isaiah 42, a mama bear in Hosea 13. Look up the literal meaning of “El Shaddai” some time. I believe that our image(s) of God are borne out in the things we value and the commitments we keep. If we want to keep God contained and our assumptions unchallenged, we only need to keep our images of God confined to our favorites. If, however, we want to worship the true and living God, we need to be open to the surprise and challenge of different faithful images.

Aspects of God’s character and being are often personified, Wisdom being the most common. Wisdom is portrayed as feminine. Yet, we have such a hard time receiving Wisdom. Sandhya Rani Jha writes that when God “show[s] up in the feminine form, [God is] so frequently ignored.”

Ignoring (or dismissing, sidelining, patronizing, belittling) 50% of the population doesn’t seem like a very wise course of action to me. But our fallen world is built on such strategies.

One month or day cannot remedy communal bias. But an explicit effort can be a small reminder of our fuller image of God (Genesis 1:27) and God’s manifold characteristics.

As God calls out leaders and sends God’s Spirit to energize and support them, may we be open to that movement no matter our level of experience or comfort. May our imaginations be broadened so that we might hear and recognize Wisdom calling out in the streets, especially in this most tumultuous year.

God’s Love for our Very Human Self

February is Black History Month, which I wrote about in this month’s Wisconsin Baptist. This is also a unique February in 2024 because it is a leap year giving us one extra day this month. To make it even more special, because of how the liturgical calendar is calculated, Ash Wednesday is very early this year: on February 14th. Most of us do remember that it’s Valentine’s Day. The stores make it hard for us to miss it, with all the chocolates and flowers and red and pink cards.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, 40 days (not counting Sundays) until Easter. It reminds us of the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, facing temptation (Mark 1:12-13; Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). Lent is a season of repentance, which means “turning back to God.” It is a recognition of our need of salvation as we journey to the cross with Jesus. Ash Wednesday specifically reminds us of our own mortality. All of us are human beings, created from the dust of the earth (and if you want to get into astrophysics, the dust of stars, the dust of all of creation of the universe), and all of us will die. All of us will return to dust. Through the love of God, who loves us so much he sent us Jesus so that we might have everlasting life and be saved (John 3:16-17), we know that death will not separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39).

Nonetheless, we are marked with ashes, a symbol of mourning and repentance, a reminder of our own fragility that without God, we are nothing. Without God, the dust and ash of the universe would not have created this beautiful and amazing Earth that we and all of creation live upon. Without God, we can do nothing. Lent is a time when we remember and turn back.

I once had a church member argue “there’s nothing in the Bible about Lent or Ash Wednesday.” And they were right—there isn’t. However, Job, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Jonah all mention the wearing of ashes as a sign of repentance, one practiced by our ancestors of the faith. The early church created these observances of Lent so we would remember. Every year, we take this time to remember what God has done for us and how without God, we are nothing. Sometimes people choose to fast in this time from certain things. Others choose to take up a new devotional or prayer practice. As this video shares, Lent is a “spring cleaning” of our spiritual lives.

Baptists do not always follow the liturgical calendar and the seasons, but many of us have found them meaningful practices so we don’t lose sight of the Christian story, and specifically the practices surrounding repentance as a reminder that we need to turn back to God. We are tempted away from God’s ways by this world we human beings have created: the systems and structures of wealth and power and worldly measures of success. Lent reminds us that it is all meaningless, dust and ashes, when it comes to the eternal reign of Christ. We do not put our trust in the powers of this world; we put our trust in God alone.

This Valentine’s Day you may be making or buying cards, or getting flowers or chocolate as you have in other years. This particular year, perhaps you might hold an Ash Wednesday service or attend one (visiting a church of another denomination can help us appreciate both the practices of other traditions as well as our own unique ways of observing sacred times and drawing closer to God). Remember, as the ashes are placed on your head, how much God loves you, that God was willing to become human like us, to become the same dust and ashes, and to die as one of us. And because of God’s great love, Christ rose for us, and we all have the same promise of eternal life. The ashes are a promise that death does not have a final word for those who know God’s love in Christ Jesus. Remember this. Repent. And know how much God loves you this Valentine’s Day.

 

Rev. Mindi Welton-Mitchell

Executive Minister

Celebrate Black History Month as American Baptists

As American Baptists, we are proud of our collective history, the times we have stood on the right side for justice. In Wayne E. Croft Sr.’s book A History of the Black Baptist Church: I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired, he writes that in 1840, the American Baptist Antislavery Convention met, including Black Baptist leaders, white abolitionists, and missionaries from Burma. From the early days of our denominational organization (this was five years before the Southern Baptist churches removed themselves to form the Southern Baptist Convention), we have known that the freedom promised in Christ is manifest in our collective liberation.

However, we also know that our history shows times where whiteness has permeated our denominational life. For many years the American Baptist Publication Society only published materials by white authors, leading to the formation of the National Baptist Publishing House in 1893. While many Black Baptist Congregations have been dually aligned with the American Baptist Churches since it was known as the Northern Baptist Convention, it wasn’t until 1965 that the Black Caucus of the ABC was formed, and in 1970 the first Black president of the American Baptist Churches was elected. In 1999, the first clergywoman elected as president of ABC-USA was our own Rev. Dr. Trinette McCray from Milwaukee.

In February 2024, Rev. Dr. Gina Jacobs-Strain will begin as our new General Secretary of the American Baptist Churches: the first Black General Secretary and first woman to lead our denomination in this position. While the president conducts the business of the denomination, the Office of the General Secretary of the American Baptist Churches, USA functions in gathering the denomination, supporting congregations, regions, and national organizations, and creating space for local and global issues. We are proud of our history, but we must ask why it has taken so long to recognize in leadership the diversity we already know, love, and celebrate.

As American Baptist Churches of Wisconsin, the most diverse denominational body in this state, we celebrate Black History Month as a reminder that we are all part of Christ’s body together. We celebrate the establishment of Calvary Baptist Church in 1895, the oldest African American Baptist Church in the city of Milwaukee. Calvary was the first African American church in Wisconsin to join the Wisconsin Baptist State Convention, now the American Baptist Churches of Wisconsin, and in 1923, Rev. Samuel S. Russell helped organize Black Baptist Churches in the Washington Baptist Convention (now the Wisconsin General Baptist State Convention, Inc).

We encourage all our churches to learn their history and especially learn the history of Black Baptist Churches. A History of the Black Baptist Church: I Don’t Feel No Ways Tired by Wayne E. Croft, Sr. is available from Judson Press, www.judsonpress.com.

2024 Intentions

I am not a resolutions person. Resolutions are easy to make and harder to keep, and goodness knows the last time I made a resolution was January 1, 2020, in which I resolved to not work at home whenever possible. Hah! The pandemic definitely made that impossible to keep.

Instead, I like the practice of intention and a word to focus on for the year. There are several word generators on the internet for the practice of intention that you can use if you want something random. Some churches do a practice called “Star Words,” in which, on Epiphany (January 6, or the Sunday closest), words are written on a paper star and you pick a star at random out of a basket. This practice is associated with the story of the Magi, who observed the star at its rising, and then, having been warned in a dream, returned home by another way. The idea is that the “Star Word” guides you on a new way in the coming year.

The last two years I have taken time out for a retreat to pray, reflect on the past year, and see where God is leading me into the next. The word that came to mind for 2023 was Joy, to find joy in all the work I do, and indeed, it has been a joyous year of ministry. The word that has come to me for 2024 is slow. Actually, it came to me in this form: S L O W. Notice the spaces between the letters.

I had the joy of attending with other denominational leaders a retreat at Holy Wisdom Monastery the first week of December following the Wisconsin Council of Churches Annual Meeting. Holy Wisdom is an ecumenical monastery. While started by Roman Catholics, it now includes Protestants in their Benedictine practice. Benedictines are committed to ministry in their location and are very grounded in their practice. They deliberately slow down—even reading the written prayers in unison, they read slower, so that they take in every word. There is a rhythm to the day that begins with centering prayer in silence. As an extrovert, the practice of silence can be very hard for me at times—but also, one that I desperately need to quiet my heart and mind.

I am heading into 2024 with all the energy, enthusiasm and excitement of 2023, including all the joy. We will be launching new initiatives for youth and young adults. We will be starting our Leadership Training Academy for church members interested in learning more about leadership in the church, including a certificate program for lay ministers. We will also hold a two-day training event on Inclusive Hybrid Ministry, funded by the Palmer Grant we received this year. And in October, we will celebrate 180 years of the American Baptist Churches of Wisconsin with our Annual Gathering the 11th and 12th at Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in Milwaukee.

Still, I intend to practice slowing down. I intend to guard my time off more carefully, to be present with my family and my church when I am not visiting other churches. To deliberately take time daily to be in touch with God, to turn off electronics and remind myself that the Word became Flesh and lived among us, and so I must also become an embodied person. I am not a machine, I am not a product, I am not an institution. I am a beloved child of God, as are you.

I hope you find ways of slowing down in this next year, and whatever intention or word God puts on your heart (or resolution, if it works for you), I hope it helps you follow Jesus more closely and deepens your relationship with our Savior.