Plainsong Farm

By Polly Hewitt

On August 4, almost 50 people – some traveling from as far as Flint and Detroit — gathered at Plainsong Farm in Rockford to hand-harvest heirloom wheat that was planted last September. The quarter-acre of wheat was cut with sickles, bundled, threshed and winnowed, using mostly manual labor. The harvest event combined prayer, Scripture, learning, live music, field work, spiritual reflection and ended with a farm-fresh meal. The night before the harvest, 20 people from across the state, met at St. Mark’s Church for a special workshop where they learned about wheat and flour, made communion bread and shared Holy Eucharist.

One of the participants summed up the entire experience by calling it “sacramental,” and saying, “By the end of the harvest, we had built a community.” The group included people from three denominations, all three lower Michigan Episcopal dioceses and every generation.

Plainsong Farm’s Turkey Red heirloom wheat will be stone milled and blended with other organically-grown Michigan heirloom wheat. Shares of the harvest are now available for baking healthy and flavorful communion bread.

The entire Plainsong wheat planting and harvest program was under the supervision of The Rev. Elizabeth DeRuff of St. Honore Farm & Mill in California, which is partnering with Plainsong Farm in a national movement to care for Creation by conserving water and other resources, improving soil health and reducing greenhouse gases. The goal of the Honore Growers Guild is to enable every altar to sustainably and intentionally source their communion bread or wafers. Western and Eastern Michigan are two of the five Episcopal dioceses currently participating in the Guild, up from just one three years ago.

If you missed the Harvest Weekend, consider joining the next Wheat Planting Day on Saturday, September 29. You can register online here. If you can’t come, learn more on Facebook or Instagram, where there are many photos from the weekend’s activities.

And that is Church

By Alicia Hagar

As the hand-wringing about the decline of the Episcopal Church continues in so many quarters of our beloved Communion, Episcopalians in my small neck of the woods have been learning that church can be a very different thing.

If we are willing to be brave, if we are willing to be vulnerable, if we are willing to throw ourselves into something that doesn’t involve a guarantee, we will find that whether or not the church is declining, the more important truth is that the church is changing and that changing in the church may yet be our very salvation.

We have a thriving Latino ministry at my home parish, and we call that ministry El Corazón, or, “The Heart.” The name is intentional. We did not want to have a Spanish worshiping community at the edges of who we are as a church. Rather, we wished to place them at our very core, our very heart, at Nuestro corazón.

We started about two years ago, with a demographic study using resources from the Greater Ottawa County United Way, along with detailed breakdown analysis from MissionInsite, a demographics analysis organization that partners with The Episcopal Church. Through our study, we found that there were over a thousand Latinos within a 15-mile radius of the church. We looked at what other churches in the area were offering and realized that the only offering came from a Catholic church holding a seasonal Spanish mass for the summer migrant workers.

The demographic data also helped us realize the extent of the segregation in our area. One report found that this part of West Michigan is the 20th most segregated area in the entire country. In our small town, the Latino population, as a percentage, is quite low within the city of Grand Haven, but then doubles when you look five miles out of the city center, triples another five miles out, and increases by tenfold at twenty miles out.

We sensed a calling. We sensed that perhaps by creating a year-round worshiping community in Spanish (though we expected it would not likely become a massively large group) we might begin to break down those walls of segregation. It might encourage more diverse families to live nearby. It might make our area more diverse, more reflective of the richness of God’s creation. We knew that would be a long-term goal, one that wouldn’t produce immediate fruit but the work called to us.

Our priest – my brother – spent many years becoming fluent in Spanish, including spending a few weeks completing an immersion experience in the Dominican Republic. He came back to Michigan with a heart on fire for Latino ministry, and in his wake came Deacon John Infante.

John – originally from Bogota, Columbia – met my brother during his time in the Dominican. It just worked out, the spirit breathed, that John would come to us. And, once he was here, John spent every waking minute pounding the pavement of our small town, Grand Haven. He stopped and spoke with any person who looked like they might speak Spanish. John had a message for them: there was a place for them at St. John’s, a place where they could worship in their native tongue every Sunday.

Together with our rector and many other parishioners, our church built from nothing a community that had their own mass entirely in Spanish. Deacon John brought in Yolanda and Daisy, Ricardo and Susy, names that I now can’t imagine our church without. These two families became our starting group, our seed, nuestra semilla. As we added to the adult community, our Sunday School and Youth Group expanded in both body and spirit.

I spent months trying to talk with Deacon John, to Yolanda and Ricardo and Susy, and together, speaking our own stilted Spanglish, we would mime or act out our thoughts to each other. Our coming together has been constant practice in making room. Making room for people whose life experience is far different than ours. The preexisting, predominantly white members of our church worked with our Latino semilla, and together we built this community called El Corazón.

We worship together as a bilingual body several times a year. Initially sermons were delivered in English. After some time, we invested in a translation device, allowing our folks talented enough to simultaneously hear in English and speak in Spanish, to translate the sermons in real-time into the ears of our Latino members.

When we worship together, we hear readings in English and in Spanish (with translations of both in the bulletin).  When we receive communion it may be in Spanish or English, knowing that the meaning is the same. Our dedicated choir has just about mastered the service music we sing in Spanish.  

Through a grant from The Episcopal Church, we were identified as a Mission Enterprise Zone. This enabled us to call John as a permanent staff member. He sold everything he owned in Bogota and came to our sleepy town with his suitcases and a dream. John, a long-term transitional deacon, will be ordained to the Priesthood on October 28th, and plans to take over our third Sunday mass, ministering to the people that he raised up.

Don’t be misled into thinking this has been easy. It has not been. Many times our own whiteness, our inner prejudices and assumptions of how church should look and sound, have had to be addressed and sometimes those conversations have been painful. Even now the language barrier can at times be real and can lead to serious misunderstanding. But we are a church committed to being church and we are working to meet each other where we are, to hear each other, to accept our own responsibility when we have gone off track.

And there are steak and chicken tacos in the kitchen for sale, and a tamale fundraiser coming soon. And a Colombian man in a collar who walks everywhere, and a community that has just recently baptized one of their own.

That first December, two years ago, we offered a bilingual Christmas Eve service during which I sang a Spanish duet, a lullaby to the baby Jesus. As I looked at the Spanish service music for the first time, I was overwhelmed. So many words I didn’t know, so much I couldn’t translate, so much that was difficult to pronounce and with unfamiliar rhythms. Whole notes became half notes, 3 bar rests became four count rests; it was confounding.

My own confusion at suddenly being confronted with music I didn’t recognize, in a language that was foreign to me, is the same confusion that our Latino members experienced every time they walked into a predominantly white, mainline church. Music that didn’t sound the same, played with an organ and not a guitar, with words they could pretend to sing but didn’t understand… that wasn’t church and wasn’t community for them.

Church is a place where you come in the doors and see the faces of people light up because you are there. Church is a place where language doesn’t matter, because your personhood is so valued that small things like language stop dividing, where you figure it out, you will look it up, you will ask your iPhone to translate for you, so important is what you need to say or hear.

We are grateful that in the midst of our small, segregated West Michigan town, we can offer a place for all Latinos that long for a community that talks like they do, where they can sing the Agnus Dei in Spanish, where they can worship our Lord, in their own language.

On the Saturday of Grand Haven’s Coast Guard Festival we held a fundraiser for El Corazón. As I stood in the crowd and navigated the deep lines of people queued up for authentic Latino foods, a friend in an ironic “Border Patrol” hat offered me a beer. We talked and joked and I gazed out at the crowd of people in the midst of generosity of food, generosity of gifts, and generosity of spirit.

Maybe it wasn’t an altar rail; maybe it was beer and a large man with a mustache wearing an ironic hat. Maybe it’s a small man in a collar who has lived through oppressive government regimes in his native land to come here and build something new. Maybe it is Daisy in her skinny jeans or Reyna, so fierce in her devotion to our kids and her roots, or Gloria, who loves so deeply and prides herself on her food.

I know that I took communion that day from a red solo cup, surrounded by people who didn’t speak my language, whose life experience I cannot hope to understand. I was fed.

That is church.

I tried hard not to cry, as I stood about three feet from Juan a few weeks ago as he was asked in his own tongue if he accepted his call to baptism, “¿Quieres ser bautizado?”. Our St. John’s community came to stand around him as they all affirmed their own baptismal vows, “Así lo haré, con el auxilio de Dios.” It was a moving thing to see those rows empty as our folks followed their friend to the font, as we witnessed his immersion into the Holy Spirit.

That is church. Eso es iglesia.

The numbers in our Latino community may never grow very large in Grand Haven—segregation is a pernicious force and this is just a crack in the cultural walls long ago erected in our area. But as those walls crack through smiles, and laughter, through shared community, the broken Body of Christ becomes manifest in new ways.

And that is church.

Confronting Tribalism

We all need boundaries. We all need limits. Without them there’d be chaos and anarchy. Without them, entropy would get the upper hand, and the edges of both things and ideas would become so blurry, so homogeneous, that (like in one of those science fiction movies) it’d become increasingly difficult to tell “which of these things is not like the other.” That’s why, in both physical systems and in human relationships, some form of energy must periodically be applied to help them maintain their integrity.

We all need boundaries. We all need limits. Without them there’d be chaos and anarchy. Without them, entropy would get the upper hand.

Some boundaries are like one-gallon milk containers––without them, milk would flood the bottoms of refrigerators. Some boundaries are like people’s front doors––you don’t cross the threshold without asking permission. And some are more arbitrary––like city, parish, county, state, and national boundaries.

Some limits are speed limits––though it seems that few follow them. Some limits are the highest level of decibels allowed in most residential areas––though that might be hard to know on the Fourth of July. And some limits are determined by age––like how old one must be to drive or vote or marry.

And denominations and religions are tribes which have boundaries, like the Twelve Tribes of Israel which were formed about 2,000 years before Jesus was born. These people would have identified with the idea of gods bound to their own particular cities, and these tribes would have practiced sacrifice to appease their gods and avoid their wrath. But in the seventh century BCE (when Deuteronomy was written), there was a theological insight among the Jewish people––a brilliant flash of light––expressed in the Shema: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One! They realized that there was only One God over all people and all Creation. One God who united all people. So for about seven hundred years, our theological ancestors were united in the One God; and this is the unity that (Jewish) Jesus and his Abba owned and experienced. And it is this dance of love, this dance of permeable boundaries that the (fully functional) Trinity experiences, without risking entropy or homogeneity.

They realized that there was only One God over all people and all Creation. One God who united all people.

In our own functional families, we begin life experiencing that “I and Mother” are One. Infants have no sense of separation from their mother. What’s referred to as the Terrible Twos are really the Terrific Twos, because children begin to differentiate. Children begin to experience themselves as separate people. People in relationships which have fluid and permeable and flexible boundaries.

And to the degree that parents are self-differentiated and emotionally healthy themselves, children experience five freedoms: the freedom to see and hear what is here and now instead of what should be, or was, or will be. The freedom to feel what they feel instead of what they “ought” to feel. The freedom to speak what they feel and think instead of what others say they “should” feel and think. The freedom to ask for what they want instead of always waiting for permission; and the freedom to take risks on their own behalf instead of just maintaining the status quo.

And when parents and their children function this way, they understand that what’s normal for them isn’t necessarily normative (determinative) for everyone else. When healthy parents raise healthy children, the children understand that opening Christmas presents on Christmas morning isn’t “right” and opening them on Christmas Eve isn’t “wrong.” When healthy parents raise healthy children, the children understand that being an Episcopalian isn’t “right” and being some other denomination isn’t “wrong.” When healthy parents raise healthy children, the children understand that different pathways to God are: Simply. Different. Pathways. And as fully functional and self- differentiated adults, they find an underlying unity that overcomes all divisions. What matters is whether as adults, they foster the kind of relationship Jesus had with the Father and with the Holy Spirit, and live it out to create Heaven on Earth.

But while there is actually no evidence in creation that God favors uniformity, there are those who take the breadth of God’s diversity and use it as something divisive. There are those who hold on to various kinds of ancient tribalisms, and inject them with “life or death consequences.” Many churches are caught up in a kind of denominational tribalism, asserting their own inherent “rightness,” above and beyond all others. Global insistence that we are “right” and others are “wrong” is killing us. And it’s my belief that we cannot have bright, shining, glorious Gospel lives without also tending to and healing our society’s family of origin issues and our shameful theological agoraphobia.

But there is hope. There is always hope. The Episcopal Church is currently in full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Malabar, India, Old Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht, the Philippine Independent Church, the Church of Sweden, and The Moravian Church – Northern and Southern Provinces. Full communion means that each Communion recognizes the catholicity and independence of the other and maintains its own; each Communion agrees to admit members of the other Communion to participate in the Sacraments; and that Intercommunion does not require from either Communion the acceptance of all doctrinal opinion, sacramental devotion, or liturgical practice characteristic of the other, but implies that each believes the other to hold all the essentials of the Christian faith. And The Episcopal Church is currently in dialogue with three other traditions: the Roman Catholic Church (through the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), the Presbyterian Church USA, and the United Methodist Church.

The Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church have recently presented a proposal for full communion: “A Gift to the World: Co-Laborers for the Healing of Brokenness; The Episcopal Church and The United Methodist Church” which could be passed at the UMC’s General Conference (likely in 2020) and at TEC’s General Convention (likely in 2021). In the meantime, there exists a Eucharistic Sharing Agreement which was passed at General Convention in 2006, in which the two traditions recognize each other as members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church in which the Gospel is rightly preached. The resolution permits common, joint celebration of the Eucharist where it is deemed appropriate for the sharing of worship by congregations of the respective Churches. And while UMC clergy cannot currently serve in an Episcopal Church due to the canonical requirement that clergy be ordained in the historic episcopate in its strictest, linear sense, that requirement would be waived in the case of the UMC, if passed. Though even now, UMC laity may become members of an Episcopal Church (those who have been Confirmed in the UMC would be received in the Episcopal Church).

The (late) Rev. Walter R. Bouman (contributor to the Called to Common Mission Concordat and professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Lutheran Seminary) said: “The agreement between the Episcopal Church and the ELCA is an essential dimension of the mission of the church because it is a witness that the Triune God is making One, what had previously been divided and at times even alienated.” And this Concordat shows how it is possible to maintain denominational integrity while allowing for permeability at the same time. It not only affirms a theological reciprocity between equals, but also establishes the groundwork for reciprocal practice in mission and ministry, since these arise out of that same unity about which Jesus spoke. It may never be that there is 100% agreement on all issues of church polity, theology, real presence, and Christology, but we can choose to not allow God’s diversity to be or become divisive.

It may never be that there is 100% agreement on all issues of church polity, theology, real presence, and Christology, but we can choose to not allow God’s diversity to be or become divisive.

I have been blessed to serve the congregations of Ascension Lutheran Church and The Church of the Holy Cross (known together as Two Churches), which recognize the authenticity of each other’s teaching and practices. And even as we strive to celebrate those things which make us uniquely Lutheran and uniquely Episcopal, we place our focus on that most important element which we hold in common––our faith in Christ. While leveraging resources, we come together in unity to live out the call and message of the Gospel in service to our neighbors. And as we continue in this common life, and the covenant which has come out of our relationship, we pray that we may be increasingly guided by God’s wisdom, illumined by God’s light, protected under God’s wing, and receive the courage to make bold decisions.

And that is my prayer for all denominations and all faiths.

The Rev. Mike Wernick is the priest and pastor of Two Churches (Ascension Lutheran and The Church of the Holy Cross Episcopal) in Kentwood, Michigan. He serves as the Ecumenical Officer for the Dioceses of Eastern and Western Michigan.