An Open Letter to Other Christians: Let’s Show Muslims Some Love (COMMENTARY)

IMG_3025Dear fellow American Christians:

Each of us lives out our faith in a particular era, in a unique time and place. We encounter challenges which are specific to our context. Our calling as followers of Christ is to face these challenges with grace and love. We cannot avoid these confrontations; they are ours, and we must engage them. Furthermore, we must consider whether we have been placed here “for just such a time as this.”

In the year 2015 in Dallas, Texas, we find ourselves facing a challenge which I think most of us would rather not confront. In our day and time, there is significant persecution, opposition, and outright hatred, of Muslims and of the practice of Islam. This was on full display a few weeks ago in Garland, outside of a convention center where Muslims were gathering with the purpose of denouncing terrorism and hate, and instead were met with protestors demanding them to “go back home and take Obama with you.” Then again last week, on Texas Muslim Day in Austin, one angry protestor grabbed a microphone from a Muslim speaker and loudly proclaimed that “Islam will never dominate in the United States, and by the grace of God it will not dominate Texas!” Furthermore, that same day, Texas legislator Molly White instructed her aides to ask any Muslim visitors to her office to recite the pledge of allegiance before speaking with them.

Now, fellow Christians, let’s set aside the theological questions for the moment. Let’s not argue over whether Muslims are going to heaven or hell, whether Muhammad can be considered a prophet, or even the merits of Islam itself. I want us to instead focus on our own behavior, on our own treatment of the stranger.

The fact is that Muslims live in America, approximately 7 million of them, which accounts for just over 2% of the population. This is not an especially big number, as you can see. More importantly, however, these Muslims are Americans. They are citizens. They work in all the sorts of jobs that we work. They serve in the military, own small businesses, play professional sports, study in universities, and even hold political office. They are, you see, our neighbors. I don’t think I need to remind you what Jesus said about our neighbors.

The fact is that the one thing that might distinguish a Muslim from one of us is, obviously, her faith. We practice different religions. This means that we hold different conceptions about God, God’s interaction with the world, God’s revelation to humans, and the prophets or messengers chosen by God. We also may have differing views about proper behavior or lifestyle. The same is true, incidentally, for the followers of Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Wiccan, or atheism.

What is the proper way for us to interact with these practitioners of other religions? What does our religious tradition teach us to do?

Again, regardless of whether we think they are “wrong” or “right,” the fundamental baseline behavior that Jesus asks us to follow is neatly summed up in this way: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

I guess that we would want the freedom to practice our religion and follow our God the way we feel called to do. I suppose that we also would not like to be criticized, yelled at, condemned, or persecuted.

Because you are my fellow Christians, I also want to propose that you consider the meaning of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 13:24-30. In this story, a farmer sows a field with wheat, but at night, an enemy comes and sows weeds alongside the wheat. As the plants begin to appear, it’s obvious that somebody has sabotaged the harvest. The farmer’s hired hands ask, “Should we go and pick the weeds and dispose of them?” The farmer replied, “No, because, while gathering the weeds, you might accidentally uproot some of the good wheat. Just let them both grow now until it is harvest time, and then I will have the reapers separate the weed from the wheat.”

I understand the point of this story to be very simple: it is not our place, nor is it the time, to be deciding who is in or who is out. It is not our role to judge who is right or who is wrong — that is clearly God’s task alone. Our job is not to identify the “infidels” and remove them from our sight. We’re likely to get that wrong anyway, and remove those who turn out to be God’s most faithful servants. This is a parable, primarily, about the patience and tolerance of God. We ought to be far more concerned about the question of whether our own lives are “wheat” or “weed.”

Finally, you may be concerned about the supposed link between Islam and terrorism. It is true that, at this moment in history, there are a number of terror groups that claim to be acting in the name of Islam, or in the interest of a unified Islamic state or “caliphate,” including Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram. At other periods in history, terror groups were linked to Christian churches or sects, such as the Ku Klux Klan, Serbian nationalists, and the IRA (Ireland). During these times, however, people did not question Christianity as being a violent religion, in and of itself. We must not allow ourselves to do the same with Islam.

Like Christianity, Islam is not monolithic. There is not only one head of Islam, no one person or one group which speaks for all of Islam. There is no one interpretation of the Koran which everyone subscribes to.

Like Christianity, Islam contains different “denominations” or expressions of faith, including Shia, Sunni, Sufi, and Ahmadiyya, to name a few. Each of these differ in doctrine, ritual, and behavior.

As with the Bible, the Koran can be read or interpreted selectively, to seem to imply that violence against unbelievers is encouraged. Before we rush to conclusions about what Muslims believe, however, we must come to terms with the violence contained in our own scriptures. Consider, for example, the 850 prophets of Baal and Ashram slaughtered by Elijah on Mount Carmel in I Kings 18:19-40, or the Lord’s command to Saul to attack the city of Amalek, sparing nobody, but “kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey” (I Samuel 15:2-3).

If nothing else, we must remain humble about our own faith and admit that violence has been done in the name of God, in the name of Jesus Christ, and in the name of the Christian church.

Islam springs from the same Biblical fountain as Judaism and Christianity, and is only a few hundred years younger than Christianity. For thirteen hundred years, it has functioned as a civilizing and healing force in many countries. It has a long history of scientific, mathematic, artistic, and spiritual achievement. In every sense of the words, it has been one of the world’s great religions.

Thus, we must recognize that the terror practiced by Islamic extremist groups is an anomaly in view of this long history. And it represents only the tiniest of fractions of actual, real-life, practicing Muslims worldwide.

Muslims are human, meaning that they suffer from the same temptations, tests, trials, and tendencies as we do. One should not be surprised that a large organization made up of humans suffers from divisions, strife, jealousies, and even hatred, which hardens and sometimes manifests as splinter groups which commit acts of terror. The same happens in Christian churches, Jewish synagogues, and Hindu temples. We are all subject to human passions and fears.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, please listen to me: the time has come for us to stand up as people of one faith to defend people of another faith. In our day, the demand of the gospel is that we stand in solidarity with people for their right to follow their own conscience and practice their faith in freedom. It doesn’t matter whether we believe them to be right or wrong, Muslims deserve our support, as human beings, as neighbors, and particularly as people of faith. The time may come when we will need their support. Indeed, already in other places in the world, Muslims have been standing up to defend the rights of minority Christians in such places as Egypt, Pakistan, and Nigeria.

For the sake of Jesus, who extended fellowship to a Samaritan woman (considered a heretic by fellow Jews), as well as Gentile demoniacs, Roman centurions, and traitorous tax collectors, can we please, please, stop the anti-Islam madness?

Rev. Wes Magruder

Wes Magruder is senior pastor of Kessler Park UMC; United Methodist pastor since 1996. Former missionary to Cameroon, West Africa. Founded Daraja, a ministry to resettled refugees in Dallas. Calls himself a “shalom activist.” Blogger, writer, speaker; loves Radiohead, U2, Wilco; has a beautiful wife and three lovely daughters!

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The Problem with Drive-By Discipleship

Daniel Darling


“Real discipleship happens off-screen, in private conversations, over a period of many years. It springs from natural friendships.”

A couple of weeks ago our small group studied the first few verses of Colossians 2. We are currently going, a few verses at a time, through this beautiful letter written by Paul and inspired by the Spirit of God. I was struck by the opening words of the second chapter:

For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ. (Colossians 2:1-2 ESV)

At first glance, it seems Paul is either whining or bragging on himself. “I want you to know how much I struggle for you.” What does Paul mean here? As we studied this passage, it became that what Paul didn’t mean was, “C’mon guys, can’t you see how hard I’m working for you here? A little credit would be nice.”

No, not at all. What Paul is saying is something different and, sadly, a little foreign to the way we think of discipleship today. I think when most of us think of discipleship, we think of it in this process: first, evangelize; second, meet regularly and go through a curriculum for spiritual growth. Both of these things are important. Evangelism–actually opening our mouths and sharing the good news of what Christ has done–this is our mission. And systematic study is vital for the spiritual growth of new converts.

But if we look at what Paul is saying here, we find that discipleship is so much more than we think. Paul is communicating to these people how much he is invested in them, how much he is for them. Imagine, for a moment, how encouraging this must feel. Paul cared deeply for their spiritual lives. He loved them. He spent long nights praying and thinking of their spiritual welfare. This is what true brotherly love and discipleship look like.

I fear that much of our discipleship is didactic in nature. We’re trying to make a point. So we think that discipleship means writing another blog or sending another tweet to people we barely know. But real discipleship happens off-screen, in private conversations, over a period of many years. It springs from natural friendships.

Paul had earned the right to speak into the lives of the believers at Colossae. Not because he had a PhD from a seminary. Not because he was on the NYT bestsellers list. Not because he had 100K followers on Twitter. Those things can all be leveraged for influential good. But the real spiritual growth transfer happens in deep and caring relationships. This church and these people would listen to what Paul had to say because Paul had been invested deeply in their lives.

I wonder if we put enough premium on this kind of relationship today. It seems there is a lot of drive-by discipleship today. It’s so easy to think that because we’re posting pithy quotes online that we’re doing God’s work. It’s easy to think rebuke and discernment are at-replying a famous Christian on twitter with whom we disagree. But is this really how people grow?

Pastors and church leaders would do well to model Paul’s investment in their people. Pastors who deeply care for their people, who actually know them well, will see a much better response to their preaching. But pastors who are only present on Sunday to deliver content—God uses this preaching to change lives, but it won’t be as effective as faithful, person-to-person ministry over a long season.

Parents would also do well to model Paul’s life. Our kids have to know that we are for them. So when we discipline and rebuke, they know it’s out of love, not out of frustration or anger. Are we present with them?

Even when we write, email, tweet, text: Does the intended audience feel that we care about them? That we are invested in them? That even if we must sharply disagree, contend, proclaim—we’re doing it with a heart broken by love for the people God loves?

Or are we doing drive-by discipleship? This is a good question to ask ourselves.  

Daniel Darling Daniel Darling is the Vice President for Communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (ERLC). For five years, Dan served as Senior Pastor of Gages Lake Bible Church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago and is the author of several books, including Teen People of the Bible, Crash Course, iFaith, Real, and his latest, Activist Faith. He and his wife Angela have four children and reside in the Nashville area.
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5 things small churches can uniquely offer … right now

January 29th, 2015

Church leadership has long held a bent toward the “bigger is better” mantra of capitalistic America. We franchise new church plants. We structure our institutions to favor the larger churches. The United Methodist Church itself has long been geared toward starting pastors off in smaller churches to get their feet wet in leadership only to move them to bigger (and often higher paying) churches once they prove themselves as capable leaders.

The flip side of the “bigger is always better” way of viewing our churches is the reality that the vast majority of churches in America (and even around the world) are, in fact, small. Historically this has also been the case. Go back and read Paul’s letters to various churches. They weren’t worshipping 1,000+ on Sundays in a concert hall or amphitheater — they small, tightly-knit communities worshipping in homes.

Now I’m not a hater of the larger church — I’ve actually served in two different large, vibrant, downtown churches. I know the strength of larger churches from their ability to support more diverse ministry to the beauty of worshipping with a large, corporate body. But now that I’m serving a smaller church, I want to point out the unique beauty of small churches. Sometimes we need to be reminded that small churches are, in fact, beautiful and they should spend less time dealing with an inferiority complex because they aren’t as large as other churches.

Instead of trying to mimmick what the large churches in your area are doing (only to come up short of their quality because you don’t have the money or resources to duplicate it), here are five things I believe small churches can uniquely offer the world right where they are:

1. Intergenerational ministry. There is a difference between intergenerational and multigenerational forms of ministry. Just because you have people of different ages gathered in the same space for worship does NOT make it an intergenerational ministry opportunity. Crossing borders between generations takes real effort. And too often larger churches segregate people based on age and stage of life. The small church, however, can’t do that because it’s too small. So instead of bemoaning the fact that you don’t have a youth ministry with 100+ kids in it, think of ways you can put the five to 10 youth you do have in contact with people from a different generation.

Numerous statistical studies actually show that an important factor in youth remaining active in the church is the presence of a deep relationship with someone older than them who is not a member of their immediate family. Segregating children and youth into their own space in the life of the church runs the terrible risk of never allowing them to encounter and forge relationships with a diverse group of people. It also sends the subtle message that they are second-class members of your church when they are not primary in the corporate ministry life of the church. Small churches offer a rich and beautiful opportunity to forge these intergenerational relationships because, well, they have to. There aren’t enough people to segregate everyone into their own corners of the church. And thanks be to God for that!

2. Welcome special needs persons and families with special needs children. One of the quiet struggles churches often don’t recognize is how to incorporate persons with special needs into the life of the church. Small churches offer a unique opportunity to meet this need because they are small enough to warmly welcome and offer the individual attention a family who has a special needs child might need. It’s a daunting thing to take a child with special needs to church for fear of them standing out or somehow disturbing the flow of worship. It’s also very lonely for that child to get lost in the mix of a large, overwhelming children’s program. Small churches can offer love, hospitality and attention to make a family feel welcome. And the truth is, small churches can offer a worship experience that is vibrant but doesn’t necessarily have the overly-produced feel that worship in a larger church might have. This is actually very welcoming to a newcomer who might feel their presence would alter the flow of worship for others. In other words, special needs can be uniquely and lovingly met and welcomed in a small church.

3. More people can help lead worship. Since the small church is often less concerned with production led by professional worship leaders, it can incorporate more laity in the leading of worship. Remember: Nothing says the pastor is supposed to be the sole worship leader. Liturgy is the work of the people. And faithful worship incorporates the efforts of EVERYONE as together we offer ourselves to God in praise and thanksgiving. So find ways to let people pray, read Scripture, serve Communion, sing and maybe even occasionally preach in the small church. One thing we’re doing this coming year in the church I’m serving is we are shifting to laity being the primary servers of communion when we celebrate the sacrament. As pastor I will preside, but we’re asking laity to serve the elements. So we’ve had a sign-up to volunteer for this duty. Again, absolutely nothing says the pastor is supposed to be the primary server of the elements. Give people a chance to lead and serve more; you might be surprised how sharing in the work of worship might begin to transform people.

4. More focus on community outreach. While small churches might bemoan the loss of in-house programs as numbers decline, I say it’s a great blessing. Large churches have to expend a great deal of effort managing and sustaining programs that focus inwardly on the life of the membership. Lots of money is spent on resources of Sunday Schools, youth programs, children’s ministry, etc. It’s really a rat race — just ask any pastor or staff person at a larger church in their most honest moments. Small churches just don’t have the resources to keep up in that race. So why try? There’s a great freedom in not worrying with the inwardly focused programs. You can actually look outwardly on your community and focus time and attention there. How can you open your space to community groups? Can you invite support groups to meet in your building (especially if your small church occupies a large building)? Can you find ways to resource your local community? Can you partner with other small churches or local missional efforts? You see, small church ministry is just ripe for people to finally break out from the inward, program-focused mindset of church and direct their attention to where God is at work outside of the walls of the church more fully.

5. Offer a family feel to others. Look, families aren’t all warm and fuzzy. They have their dysfunction. And so does a small church because if often operates like a big, extended family. However through all of that dysfunction, one thing is (hopefully) certain: People know they are loved. As our world becomes more global, there is a rise to locally-focused relationships in business, commerce and relationships. The small church can offer something that might get lost in a large church where people don’t always know one another by name — you can actually be a part of a family. In our worst moments, that family feel leads us to gossip or insulation from others who aren’t a part of our family. In our best moments, it’s an expression of true love extended to anyone searching for a community who will love them enough to never let them go. Family is tough and it’s messy. But it’s also very beautiful. And so is small church ministry.

About the Author

Ben Gosden

Ben Gosden is Associate Pastor at Mulberry Street United Methodist Church in Macon, Ga.,
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Mission Service Opportunities for Generation Transformation
Left to right are recently commissioned Global Mission Fellows Marcharkelti McKenzie, Hye-In Lee, Connor Kenaston, Krystal Norman, Paola Ferro, Alyson McCoy, Elfie Grace Tangunan, and Edward White

Young Adult Mission Opportunities Available Now

Are you a young adult or do you know a young adult who is ready to share God’s love and commit to a two-year life-changing mission opportunity? The Generation Transformation Global Mission Fellows priority application deadline is January 31.

Generation Transformation is an initiative of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries offering service opportunities for young adults ages 18-30. “Generation Transformation is for all who are willing to go, and ready to respond to God’s call,” says Rachel deBos, a young adult mission advocate for Global Ministries.

Global Mission Fellows sends young adults ages 20-30 out of their home context for two years of mission service. This is a faith- and justice-centered opportunity that grew out of the historic US-2 and Mission Intern programs. The Global Mission Fellows aim to engage with local communities, connect the church in mission and grow in personal and social holiness. The US-2 track is a 24-month service program for Americans who are called to serve in the United States. The International track is a 25-month service program for young adults all across the globe who are called to serve in another country.

“The program’s revised structure will better reflect Global Ministries’ mission to ‘connect the church in mission,’” says Elizabeth Chun Hye Lee, the program’s executive secretary. “Local United Methodist leaders—lay leaders, pastors, missionaries and/or campus ministers—will provide mentorship and support, helping Fellows navigate opportunities and challenges that arise as they pursue a life of mission.” Learn more about the program at

Generation Transformation is a movement of young adults using their faith to address injustice and work for systemic change around the world. It is often said that United Methodist missionaries go “from everywhere to everywhere,” making Generation Transformation truly a global initiative.

“Global Ministries is committed to offering mission service opportunities for young people all around the globe,” says Judy Y. Chung, who leads missionary services. “As young people are mobilized to serve in mission, integrating faith and justice, the movement will inspire and transform the world.”

Young adults ages 18-30 who are interested in short-term service can apply to be a Global Justice Volunteer. Small teams of volunteers spend 8 weeks during the months of June through August exploring the links between faith and social justice as they work with local grassroots organizations around the world. The application deadline is February 1, 2015.

Generation Transformation is changing the world one young adult missionary at a time. If you’re a young adult committed to working for justice through faith, you’re encouraged to apply now or share these opportunities throughout your network! These programs develop strong young leaders who are committed to building just communities and a peaceful world.

Learn more about Generation Transformation at or email Follow @umcmissionGT on Twitter for program updates.  Financial support can be made through Advance #13105Z.

Media contact: Melissa Hinnen, Director of Content & Public information,

– See more at:

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Calling United Methodist young people:

May hidden talent ka ba sa writing and you want to use that for ministry?

Together with my writer friends, I will mentor you and provide some guidance in helping you develop your skills. Hindi lang iyan, as you become more proficient, your writing output may be featured on my blog, and some other blogs or websites.

Here’s how to be a part of this:

1. Send me at least two articles you’ve written. (at least 300 words)
2. Tell me about yourself and any writing experience you may already have.
3. Send it to mightyrasing @ gmail . com

Limited slots lang po ito. I will inform you if you’ll be included sa group.

Calling United Methodist young people:  May hidden talent ka ba sa writing and you want to use that for ministry? Together with my writer friends, I will mentor you and provide some guidance in helping you develop your skills. Hindi lang iyan, as you become more proficient, your writing output may be featured on my blog, and some other blogs or websites. Here's how to be a part of this: 1. Send me at least two articles you've written. (at least 300 words) 2. Tell me about yourself and any writing experience you may already have. 3. Send it to mightyrasing @ gmail . com Limited slots lang po ito. I will inform you if you'll be included sa group.

Calling United Methodist young people:

May hidden talent ka ba sa writing and you want to use that for ministry?

Together with my writer friends, I will mentor you and provide some guidance in helping you develop your skills. Hindi lang iyan, as you become more proficient, your writing output may be featured on my blog, and some other blogs or websites.

Here’s how to be a part of this:

1. Send me at least two articles you’ve written. (at least 300 words)
2. Tell me about yourself and any writing experience you may already have.
3. Send it to mightyrasing @ gmail . com

Limited slots lang po ito. I will inform you if you’ll be included sa group.

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Jan 28 at 9:16 PM
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Photo by Gladys P. Mangiduyos, UMNS

Alexis John Caguingin holds his trophy after winning the senior division of the National Bible Quiz held in Manila, Philippines.

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National Bible Quiz winner plans to keep studying

By Gladys P. Mangiduyos
Jan. 20, 2015 | MANILA, Philippines (UMNS)

The first-place winner in the senior division of the Ninth National Bible Quiz plans to keep studying the word of God.

“I am so blessed, really, and it will not end here, we will start in small groups,” Alexis John Caguingin said.

He emphasized the phrase “Don’t be afraid” in his verse exposition during the quiz. He noted later that the phrase is mentioned 365 times in the Bible.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of, so don’t be afraid,” he said, adding that the message is “the Lord is with us.”

Caguingin was among 29 finalists from all over the Philippines who competed in junior and senior divisions in the Jan. 17, 2015, grand finals at the Philippine Bible Society Auditorium.

The four rounds of the competition include two rounds in which they answer questions about the Bible, and a third round in which contestant recite a Bible verse. In the fourth round, the top five in each round do verse expositions – comprehensively explaining and describing Bible verses.

The theme of the quiz, held every other year, was “Sharing God’s Word, Empowering the Poor, Transforming the Land.”  The United Methodist Church Board of Christian Education and Discipleship sponsors the quiz in partnership with the Philippine Bible Society.

The national competition was started in 1997 as part of the build-up for the celebration of the centennial of Methodism in the Philippines in 1898-1999. It was the brainchild of Baguio Area Bishop Daniel Arichea Jr., who was then assigned to the Board of Christian Education and Communications and was also the chairperson of the Philippine Bible Society.

The partnership between The United Methodist Church and the Bible society has used the quiz to “generate support from the churches and develop interest in Bible reading and study, especially among the youth and children,” said Judge Benjamin Turgano, chairman of the quiz program.

He said the national quiz “aims to raise awareness of Biblical truth among the youth and strengthen the conviction that God’s Word is the basic foundation of a happy and peaceful life in this world.”

Nora Lucero, general secretary of the Bible society, expressed her joy and thanksgiving for the quiz. “By sustaining it consistently for 18 years, I believe we will be able to make it until God’s Kingdom comes,” Lucero said.

The Bible wizards

The winners at the junior level were:

  • First place, Erica Aurelle Arciga, Tarlac Philippines Annual Conference (PAC).
  • Second place, Natasha Gazelle Sico, Pangasinan PAC
  • Third place, Lia Jemimah Gregorio, Central Luzon PAC

The winners at the senior level were:

  • First place, Alexis John Caguingin, Bulacan PAC
  • Second place, John Clarence Pera, Quezon City PAC East
  • Third place, Billy Joe Fortes, North Central PAC

The Bible quiz provides great experience and opportunity, said contestant Jason Mark Dado from Visayas Philippines Annual Conference.

“We will encourage others, we will share our experiences, we will persuade other young people to help them develop their faith in God,” Dado said of his group, which included

Avegail Rose Montecillo and Devorah Grace Garcia, both from Mindanao.

The Coaches

The Rev. Teresita Takot, a coach from Mindanao, said the quiz was a great challenge that needed to be emphasized more.

“Our annual conference shall pay attention on this, not just for the church workers but for the young people,” Takot said.

Coach Rebecca Kathleen Vidal from Pangasinan said the quiz was empowering for the young people. “When we go back to our place, we will help revitalize the local church.”

Nina Arciga, the mother of Erica Aurelle, said her daughter was an accidental participant.

“She was a nanny to her younger cousins and other young people, but when a participant is missing, she took over,” she said.

Bishop Arichea thanked all those who have sustained and supported the program for 18 years.

“We can evaluate and improve this, and probably offer new ways of doing it. We are moving on to perfection,” Arichea said.

Mangiduyos is a correspondent for United Methodist News Service and chair of the United Methodist Church Board of Christian Education and Discipleship.

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Pension board adopts new guidelines

climate changeThe United Methodist General Board of Pension & Health Benefits has announced two new guidelines to provide direction for identifying and managing the excessive sustainability risk regarding climate change and human rights.

human rights

(UMNS) — Being good to the planet and its people ultimately will be good for United Methodist workers’ bottom line. That’s the principle behind two changes to the investment policy of the United Methodist General Board of Pension & Health Benefits (GBPHB).

In November, the board’s directors voted to exclude certain investments in coal and avoid investing in companies meeting certain thresholds that operate in countries with “a prolonged and systematic pattern of human rights violations.” These changes are just starting to take effect.

The changes … come with an eye toward both Church values and the long-term financial returns.

The changes, part of an investment policy called the management of excessive sustainability risk, come with an eye toward both Church values and the long-term financial returns of United Methodist beneficiaries, say GBPHB staff members.

“What this means is that we feel that the companies that we identify [for possible exclusion] have policies and practices that are not sustainable and will ultimately result in losses in value for the companies,” said Dave Zellner, GBPHB chief investment officer.

For example, GBPHB staff members foresee only diminishing returns from companies that extract the thermal coal used to generate electricity. With the increased international focus on climate change and the attendant regulation, coal, the most carbon-intensive fuel, is losing steam as people turn to other energy sources.

Human-rights violations

Human-rights violations pose a similar problem for investors, according to GBPHB staff members. A country that abuses its people isn’t just immoral, it’s bad for business, they say.

A country that abuses its people isn’t just immoral, it’s bad for business.

The pension board manages retirement plans for more than 91,000 participants, including United Methodist clergy and lay employees. Through its Wespath Investment Management division, the board also manages the assets of United Methodist-affiliated endowments, foundations and other institutions.

Altogether, the board oversees $21 billion in assets, including the largest church pension fund in the United States.

The new guidelines

Kirsty Jenkinson, GBPHB managing director of Sustainable Investment Strategies, said the board is working with the research firm Sustainalytics to determine which companies it will exclude from its funds.

Specifically, the new coal guideline may result in the board excluding:

  • Any company deriving at least 50% of revenues from the extraction and/or mining of thermal coal.
  • Electric utilities deriving at least 75% of overall fuel mix from coal. The exception is a company that has demonstrated its intent to transition from coal to getting at least 10% of its energy from renewable sources.

In developing countries, the guideline will factor in the importance of access to energy in economic development.

Prolonged, systematic pattern

The new human-rights guidelines may exclude any company that provides significant financial services to or derives more than 10% of its revenues or raw materials from:

  • Countries demonstrating a prolonged and systematic pattern of human rights violations.
  • Conflict-affected areas where significant human-rights violations have been widely documented or significant breaches of international law have occurred.

GBPHB especially will scrutinize companies that operate in nations with the worst ranking in Freedom House’s annual “Freedom in the World” report. In its 2014 report, the worst rankings went to the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Level of trust

“We’re not planning to specifically release the [names of] companies that will be excluded from our portfolio,” Jenkinson said. “Successful engagement relies on a level of trust between ourselves and the companies we engage. Naming companies that we determine represent excessive sustainable-investment risk would likely impair this trust and thus our ability to positively influence change.”

Instead, the board will continue to publicize the companies where it has investments. Lists of GBPHB holdings are updated quarterly at Investment Holdings on its website.

Zellner said the new rules are highly unlikely to lead to exclusion of Motorola, Hewlett-Packard or Caterpillar. Those companies have been targets of widespread divestment campaigns because the Israeli military uses their products in the occupied Palestinian territories. General Conference, the denomination’s top policy-making body, voted in 2012 against a proposal to divest from the three companies.

Some companies may be excluded because of their connection to the settlements, Zellner said. “But those three companies would not meet the criteria that would exclude them,” he pointed out.

To exclude or not to exclude?

The pension board increasingly faces pressure to exclude other kinds of businesses as well. The Fossil Free UMC movement is urging that coal, petroleum and natural gas be added to the denomination’s investment exclusions.

The Baltimore-Washington, California-Nevada, Pacific Northwest, and Virginia conferences have approved resolutions to study the issue. The movement cites the denomination’s Book of Discipline, which speaks of the dangers greenhouse gases pose to the overall climate and the economically vulnerable.

The denomination’s Social Principles urge world governments and United Methodists to work toward the reduction of such emissions.

The Rev. Jenny Phillips is the coordinator of the Fossil Free Movement and minister for environmental stewardship and advocacy in the Pacific Northwest Conference.

“The task at hand isn’t like asking Nike to stop making shoes in sweatshops,” Phillips told GBPHB in November. “It’s like asking Nike to stop making shoes.”

A seat at the table

But Zellner and others at GBPHB are quick to point out the board can have more influence in encouraging sustainable corporate decisions if it has a seat at the table.

The Rev. Ed Tomlinson, a GBPHB director and pastor in the North Georgia Conference, puts it this way: If a parishioner decides to leave his congregation for good, “I am not going to listen to their opinions any further.” The church will likewise be ignored if it abandons some investments altogether, he asserts.

GBPHB’s engagement has had some success in the fossil-fuel industry. GBPHB recently led an investor coalition to get ConocoPhillips to set a public goal for decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. The company is aiming for a 3% to 5% reduction in emissions this year, said Anita Green, GBPHB manager of Sustainable Investment Strategies.

Even with the current volatility in the oil and gas markets, neither fossil fuel is going away anytime soon. GBPHB has a fiduciary duty to its beneficiaries to stay involved, staff members say, adding it also helps that some oil and gas companies are working to develop more renewable sources of energy.

A ‘moral mirage’

Timothy Smith, a GBPHB board member, works as a senior vice president of Walden Asset Management where he spends a great deal of his time advocating on environmental issues. He said it’s a “moral mirage” to think that if the denomination abandoned all fossil-fuel investments it would directly affect global energy consumption.

At the same time, Smith said divesting from coal can make a substantial difference in an investment portfolio’s climate picture. When Stanford University decided to purge its coal stocks last year, it discovered that the move would cut the carbon footprint of its investment portfolio by half.

Determining when it’s best to remain engaged and when it’s best simply to walk away will remain a challenge for the pension board and other Church-related investors. But staff members are hopeful the new guidelines will help.

“There is so much that goes on behind the scenes that the average United Methodist member or pastor has no idea,” said Missouri Area Bishop Robert Schnase, vice chair of the pension board. He joined the board in 2012, and as a clergy member, he is also a beneficiary of its investments.

“I’ve known all along that they make good decisions related to their fiduciary responsibilities,” Schnase said, “But the new door that has been opened for me is seeing how conscientious they are in working with companies around environmental, social and governance issues.”

Editor’s note: Heather Hahn is a news reporter for United Methodist News Service, Nashville, Tenn.

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‘Let’s intercept traffickers!’

First United Methodist Church anti-trafficking teamMembers of First United Methodist Church, Seattle, Wash., huddle together. (Photo by Elizabeth Blanton)

United Methodist Women (UMW) are huddling together to bring awareness to human trafficking in the two weeks leading up to Super Bowl Sunday. UMW has asked United Methodist groups to participate virtually by submitting photos of Sunday school classes, congregations and committees in huddles for a photo campaign called “Intercept the Traffickers.”

Intercept the TraffickersUnited Methodist Women has launched a campaign “Intercept Human Trafficking” tied to the upcoming Super Bowl.

“Human trafficking is a crime,” said Susie Johnson of UMW’s Washington Office of Public Policy. She said this campaign is part of UMW’s ongoing effort to stop labor and sex trafficking.

“United Methodist Women from across the nation have joined this sacred mission by taking a stand to prevent, protect and prosecute those impacted by this trade in human beings that occurs everywhere in the world,” Johnson said.

Powerful virtual witness

Our “Intercept The Traffickers” photos will be a powerful part of a virtual huddle around the University of Phoenix stadium on Super Bowl Sunday. First United Methodist Church of Seattle is throwing support behind the photo campaign. Will you join us?

Consider taking some time in worship, community groups, or committee meetings during the days leading up to the Super Bowl, Feb. 1, to explain the cause and take a picture of members of your congregation huddled together to intercept human trafficking.

Information, bulletin inserts and directions for making your photos part of the UMW virtual campaign can be found at Intercept the Traffickers.

Editor’s note: Elizabeth Blanton and Cary Lee are members of First United Methodist Church, Seattle,Wash.
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Ebola — A cry for faith

Prayer for Ebola victims(Photo by Kathleen Berry, UMNS)

The story of the four men who let their friend down to Jesus through a roof demonstrates the kind of faith that has to be shown to the many people who are poor and caught in the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

The faith demonstrated by the friends was unprecedented.

The faith demonstrated by the friends was unprecedented.

It was so crowded that it seemed impossible to get near Jesus. The four needed an alternative, creative means of getting help for their friend. They realized that teamwork and a quick response was essential: swift action that would enable healing, and that had to happen immediately.

So what did they do? They took a risk, one that probably had not been done before; it was filled with danger, for they might have gotten hurt.

Issues did not matter

It was an opportunity that was likely costly, for who would pay for the broken roof?

It was an opportunity that would engender criticism, that would be disruptive, even taking a chance on the safety of those below.

Faith is assurance of things hoped for, proof of what is not seen.

But those issues did not matter, a friend needed urgent help, and these four would bring their efforts and their faith to make a difference for a sick friend. The mission was accomplished. Jesus not only saw the man who was lowered down through the roof, but he also saw the faith of the friends. Their faith made a difference.

Faith is assurance of things hoped for, proof of what is not seen (Hebrews 11:1). The friends saw wholeness, restoration, and God’s glory, rather than what was apparent. These four men would follow the footsteps of Esther, Ruth and little Miriam as she dashed to bring her mother to the princess. All of them, like the four friends, made a huge difference as their faith brought glory to God.

Faith that overwhelms circumstances

Similarly, the Ebola patients in West Africa need such friends: people whose faith overwhelms the circumstances and all the reasons to ignore the crisis — reasons of cost, inconvenience, time, risk, efforts, responsibilities, and the challenges of addressing a disease demanding a fight, a struggle that calls for combined efforts, a battle that has challenged the World Health Organization, the United Nations, and the health experts who have done this before.

But, like the men in Luke 5 and Mark 2, the dire need of a friend has to be tackled, because this is beyond the sick one. God’s glory is at stake.

Scripture reminds us that a friend loves at all times (Proverbs 17:17), a friend is loyal, born to help in time of need (Proverbs 17:17), a friend is even willing to lay down his life (John 15:13-15). Jesus’ example of the perfect friend calls us to go and do likewise, even teaming up and putting a friend through a roof.

Our prayer is that the victims of Ebola, who are disproportionately poor, often victims of social injustice, and extremely ill, will have such friends, those of great faith who will accomplish the impossible through Christ.

Liberia outreach on EbolaAn outreach team from Miller McAllister United Methodist Church, Ganta, Liberia, gathers rice, bags of charcoal, buckets with chlorine and soap, drinking water and other food for families infected with Ebola. (Photo by the Rev. Anna Kaydor Labala, UMNS)

Editor’s note: Rose Farhat, a Liberian, earned her M. Div. at Wesley Theological Seminary. She heads Women of Prayer & Praise, a nonprofit organization targeted towards education of women and girls in West Africa. While attending Wesley, she served as an intern at the General Board of Church & Society working in the area of Women’s & Children’s Concerns. She can be reached via email

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