Wednesday, September 27, 2017

We go to an Experience

Compassion Experience, Fashion Fair Mall, Fresno, California
I really need to get my passport renewed. Not that I have any place to go right now, but if something should come up, I’d like to be ready. Still, I didn’t need it to go to the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, and Uganda earlier this month. For that, we only had to go to the Fashion Fair mall’s parking lot.

Compassion International, a charity that allows people to sponsor poor children in other nations, hosted the four day event. Through this multi-media, immersive presentation, people to take a virtual tour of the life of a child in another part of the world. Compassion sends specially equipped trailers throughout the country to raise awareness of the needs of children in impoverished portions of the world. This trailer was open for Fresno-area people to visit from Friday through Monday.

We went to with our niece, Sarah, on Sunday after church. As we went inside, we had to choose the appropriate line: one for people who had signed up online ahead of time, and the other for dropins like us who hadn’t wanted to commit to a time. When it was our turn, we were asked if we had a preference for which experience we’d prefer; we said would take whichever had space available (each experience takes about twenty minutes). A minute or two later, we were sent on the Jonathan path to hear the story of a boy from the Dominican Republic.

On the provided iPod and earphones, we heard a child actor give a first person account of his life. As directed, we went from room to room, starting with the narrator's childhood home. We learned about his growing up, and about how a Compassion Center had been instrumental in his education, his health, and his survival. We learned that this care was made possible financially by a donor in another country. In the final room, the voice of the real Jonathan, now grown, took over for the actor. He told about his current productive life and about how much he owes to the people who gave to him through Compassion.

You know how in an amusement park ride, the ride ends in the gift shop? With The Compassion Experience, you  where end up in a room where you have the opportunity to sponsor a child, choosing from children from a number of countries.

One wall has a large map showing the countries where Compassion cares for children. (One country without Compassion’s work right now is India -- not because there aren’t still many children in great need in that nation, but because the current government of India has closed the country to outside aid.) We were there on the third day, and we were told that of the 150 children up for sponsorship that weekend, only about 50 remained.  

We made a second visit on Monday and took the two other tours, the story of Olivia in Uganda and the story of Kiwi in the Philippines (there are a number of other stories, too, but these three were available in Fresno this time). As we were getting ready to leave, we saw a group of students and teachers who we assume were visiting for a social studies or world geography class.

On our second visit, we noticed that some people working in the trailer were wearing blue shirts and some were wearing green shirts. We learned that the blue shirts (such as Scott, who talked to us in the sponsorship room) are local volunteers. The green shirts are people who work for Compassion and tour with The Compassion Experience (we met workers from Kentucky and Texas who’d been on the road, they said, for four or five months so far this year). This may not have been (strictly speaking) a church service, but many churches (and church people) support this and similar ministries. We wanted to make sure you were aware of this good thing.

Your Turn
We were surprised how connected we felt with the children profiled in the Compassion Experience, just by walking through three rooms, hearing a story, and learning how a relatively small donation could literally change a child’s life for the better, providing education, medical care, and a chance to meet Jesus. Technology can help us communicate and understand each other: how can it be harnessed for the good of these children?

There are many other organizations that have child sponsorship programs: World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, and Save the Children are well-known. Last year, we visited the annual leadership meeting for Global Fingerprints. An acquaintance involved with their work recently posed this question for those who already sponsor a child with any organization: “What would allow you to feel more involved with your child?”

What suggestions do you have for allowing caring people to become more connected with those -- especially children -- they want to help?

Thursday, September 21, 2017

We go to you for advice

We sent off a proposal for a book about 2016’s adventures (If you’ve forgotten what we did, you can read everything we posted last year on both blogs or just this and this), and we need your help!

The book will be packed with stories of the bars, churches, and other places we visited, and memories of the people we met along the way, but we’re afraid we might forget something important. What places, events, and people do you want to know more about? What were your favorite stories from the trip? And if we get to go on a book tour sometime, where do we need to go?

Thanks for your help! We'll do our best to incorporate your suggestions in the final version of the book. If you want more information about it -- or anything else -- message us.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

We go to a Hymn Sing (with snacks!)

Northwest Church, Fresno, California
Something that intrigued us last year when we were visiting churches in every state, was the number of churches that targeted young people, but used hymns in worship. We went to several urban churches with congregations composed primarily of those in their twenties and thirties that used works by Watts and Wesley, along with other hymnists old and new. Often the hymns had new settings, and they weren't accompanied by an organ but rather by a worship band with electric guitars and drums.

We were at Northwest Church’s Primetimers last Saturday afternoon, and Pastor Bob asked the group, “How many of you love the old hymns?” I do believe everyone raised their hands. This wasn’t much of a surprise, because the event was, after all, a hymn sing. We’d heard the event announced at the 11:00 am “Live and Loud” worship service the Sunday before, and we decided we wanted to go. The music at Sunday’s service had not been hymns. As was true of most large churches we’ve visited in the Fresno area (especially those targeting young families), they mainly sang choruses with the worship band’s volume to eleven.

Saturday’s Hymn Sing was an event designed for those of retirement age (besides the sound guy, I’d guess we were the youngest in attendance). When we entered, we were greeted by many, and Margaret invited us to sit at her table. In the announcement we’d heard in Sunday’s service, the event was called a dessert potluck. But Pizza Hut was on the table, so we asked about that. “Some people in the group are diabetic,”  Margaret answered, “so we opened it up to finger food.” Mindy and I both regretted having eaten lunch already -- not that it stopped us from filling up our plates. (Mindy brought churro cream puffs with apple pie filling, by the way.)

There was lively conversation around the table. Bill and Kay sat next to me, and Bill mentioned that they too had been to all fifty states. He talked about churches he’d visited in various places. Usually, they’d been greeted warmly (he remembered a Methodist Church with a woman pastor that he’d happily revisit) but one church in their travels was an exception. Everyone treated them cooly, and the only reason they could figure for this was that Kay had been wearing slacks, while all the other women wore dresses.

I asked if Primetimers was the name of a Sunday School class in the church and was told it wasn’t. Primetimers is the name for special events for seniors. Still, most of those at the hymn sing attend the same 9:30 Sunday School class after attending the 8:00 am traditional worship service (with a choir and orchestra and “a mix of classic and contemporary music” according to the church website).

The hymn sing was the fifth of six Primetimers events this year. Several women at the table spoke enthusiastically about the Super Souper, a soup potluck, a challenging event where it’s difficult to try everything. The only remaining gathering this year is a Veteran’s Day event which will feature a Honor Guard.

While we ate, Bob (not Pastor Bob Small who organized the event) played the piano. We were told Bob played the organ at the 8:00 am worship service, and his work was greatly appreciated and admired by the group. Senior pastor Will Stoll wasn’t at the event, but it was obvious that his work was appreciated by the group. Their love for Pastor Bob, whose ministry is to the senior adults, was also very much apparent.

After people had an hour to talk and eat, Pastor Bob went to the stage and thanked Bob for his work on the piano. He passed out the “Red Backed Hymnal” which he described as the go to book for classic hymns -- though it didn’t have all the old classic hymns. It didn’t have “It Is Well With My Soul,” so a printed handout with that hymn was passed out. (The book did have the song, “Tell Mother I’ll be There,” but we didn’t sing that one.) Pastor Bob introduced Virgil, who would be leading the group in singing what Virgil said were “all your favorites.”

We sang “Victory in Jesus” which apparently was a favorite of a former staff member at Northwest and once was quite a favorite in the church. Before singing “It is Well,” Virgil had us read through the lyrics aloud, and Virgil made remarks about the hymn, a short little sermon. “It is well with our souls. The longer we live, the less well it is with our bodies,” he added.

Amazing Grace” was introduced as “America’s Hymn” which I think is an apt description. (I think that’s true even when it is sung to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun” or the theme to “Gilligan’s Island”. Not surprisingly, the original tune was used here.)

We noticed as we sang that one or two people at our table signed along. We learned later that a woman at our table has a son who is deaf, and that Bill taught sign language.  We enjoyed talking about the challenges of translation when the singing was done.

We had a good time with the friendly and welcoming people of the Primetimers. It’s good to hear the “grand old hymns of the faith” kept alive. I’m sure we’ll sing these songs in Heaven along with some Jars of Clay, U2 -- and possibly Stryper.

Service Length: 1 hour 43 minutes (from prayer for the meal to the end of the hymn sing)
“Sermon” Length: 6 minutes
Visitor Treatment: Before we even came in, a woman greeted us. Someone helped us put our dessert on the table, and Margaret invited us to sit at her table. Nobody seemed “assigned” to greet visitors, but quite a few people welcomed us and invited us to come back.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Rough Count: 33
Probable Ushers’ Count: 35
Snacks: Three tables covered with desserts, salads, little sandwiches, and deviled eggs; decaf and water.
Musicians: keyboard (man)
Songs: “Blessed Assurance”
“Power in the Blood”
“At the Cross”
“The Old Rugged Cross”
“Victory in Jesus”
“When we all get to Heaven”
“Just a Little Talk with Jesus”
“Have Thine Own Way, Lord”
“It is Well with my Soul”
“Amazing Grace”
Distance to Church: 5 miles
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: none
Church Website:

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Mindy Goes to a Missionary Meeting

Women’s Missionary Service at The Bridge Church, Fresno, California
I’m not much of a “women’s gatherings” kind of person. If I can avoid a women’s gathering, I will -- unless it involves missionaries. I’m all in for missionaries. So when a day off from work coincided with the monthly meeting of WMS at The Bridge, I made a salad, packed my scissors, and grabbed a cotton sheet...more about that in a minute.

The meeting room was full of activity when I arrived a few minutes after 9:00 am. At least ten women were already at work on various projects; others were getting coffee, and hot water (and ice water) ready. I put my salad on a table next to a box of home-grown grapes before going to a woman standing between a sign in sheet and an offering basket.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m new.”

She welcomed me and had me write my name, email address, and birthday at the bottom of the attendance sheet. I forgot to ask about the offering basket, but when I asked what the different projects were, she pointed to a table where women were working on items for Samaritan’s Purse (I think for Operation Christmas Child, but I’m not sure); another where cotton sheets would be torn into strips, then sewed and rolled into bandages for a hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One table was covered with card stock, colored pictures, decorative doodads, glue, and scripture passages for making cards. In one corner, a woman was tying a quilt stretched on a rack in preparation for binding. One long table held several sewing machines, where the bandage strips were sewed. Another table held fabric donated for quilt-making, and women were choosing fabric for the quilts they’d sew at home.

I left my sheet for the workers at the bandage table, and asked if I could help tie off the quilt. Another woman joined us and helped me find the right needle and a threader. When we sat down, they asked if I’d ever tied a quilt before. I said I had, but I noticed that this quilt was tied differently than the one I’d worked on with my sister thirty years earlier. They showed me what to do, and with someone on each of the four sides of the crib-sized quilt, we had three quilts tied in about an hour.

By then, donuts and coffee were out, and when a newcomer asked if she could join the quilt-tying group, I was happy for an opportunity to try another project. After getting a cup of coffee, I found an empty chair at the card-making table, where one of the projects was making scripture cards for students in an area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo with little infrastructure and few possessions. These cards, with their scripture passage in Lingala and artwork cut from pretty greeting cards, are treasured by many of the students. After about half an hour, we’d made all the cards we could, and I moved back to the table where two women were making bandages.

One woman wanted to help set up for lunch, so she showed me how to use the bandage roller (yay!). The other woman at the table was also visiting WMS for the first time; her neighbor, a regular part of the group, had invited her to come. While I tried to keep my bandage rolled neatly, she and another woman chatted as they put away fabric to be torn and rolled at the next meeting.

Long before I finished rolling my bandage, the speaker and her husband had arrived and wandered back to our table as they looked at the various projects. Rachel’s been a missionary in the Congo for years; her husband, Gilbert, is Congolese. I wanted to ask her about the Evangelical Free Church’s child sponsorship program, and in the course of our conversation, she mentioned that she’d been in language school with Dean’s sister and brother-in-law, and that when Daryl and Carol were in the Congo last year, they’d stayed with Rachel and Gilbert. (I later learned that one of our nieces was named for Rachel). While we talked, the bandage roll was finished and all around the room, tables were being readied for lunch.

After some group photos and a prayer around the tables full of salads, we sat down to eat, and several women joined the group for the meal and to hear what Rachel had to tell us about her work.

Rachel is a missionary with ReachGlobal, serving in the Democratic Republic of the Congo near Tandala Hospital (where she was a nurse prior to the Second Congo War at the end of the 20th century. Now, she’s the contact for White Cross Ministry, a service branch of the Evangelical Free Church that provides cotton bandages and other hospital supplies to Tandala Hospital, along with supporting health and education work in an area with dirt roads that flood easily, less than spotty phone coverage, huge obstacles to education, and deep needs. Rachel is a liaison in country for the Global Fingerprints child sponsorship program.

I’ve always loved a good missionary slide show, and though brief, Rachel’s was compelling. Her husband, Gilbert, drives the truck that brings supplies to the hospital. Through the work of White Cross, people in the hospital and its clinics have access to the materials they need. Global Fingerprints provides a pathway for children and teenagers (and their families) to have needed medical care, food, hygiene supplies, and educational opportunities that otherwise don’t exist.

I get pretty excited about people helping each other. I get very excited about concrete, practical, simple projects that help and also bring people together. When those things also provide a way to show people the love of Christ, I start losing the words to talk about it.

Earlier this week, we shared Paige’s post about church gatherings that are scheduled in such a way that many women can’t attend. This was one of those the group of nearly 50 women, I saw one or two in their 30s or 40s as we worked on projects, and a couple more came just for the lunch and Rachel’s talk.

Church, there’s no need for missions to be just for women. Certainly, it’s not something only older women care about. How can we do better?

Monday, September 11, 2017

Guest Post: Church Ladies

Our daughter, Paige Lowe, posted this on her Facebook page, but we thought it had ideas that others in churches -- and church leadership -- need to hear. She gave us permission to post it here. 

The photos are from a variety of churches across the country, but not from the one Paige visited this week. 
Dear American church,

I love you. Let's talk.

I went to a church this morning (that shall remain nameless. They seemed like nice people) and when I opened the bulletin, I was greeted by an insert listing all their life groups (Bible studies in hip modern church speak).

I was impressed by the sheer number of groups, but as I began to look, I got more and more frustrated. There were 20 groups. Five of those groups were focused on parents or moms (moms, working moms, parents, parents of young kids). None of them were specifically for dads, but don't worry, men. Four other groups were just for you, and none of them take place during work hours. Are you 30+? There's a group for you. If you're in recovery, there are 3 groups for you (two of those specifically for women). Couples? There are a few groups for you, too (unclear whether or not any of them apply to those who are couples with someone who watches Dragon Ball Super instead of going to church on Sunday mornings).

Women's groups for the weird non-moms in non-crisis? There's a women's group for women at "all ages and stages" on 9:30 am on a Wednesday, so I guess you’re welcome as long as your age and stage isn't "employed in a standard weekday job.”

The problem isn't just this church. Most churches I've been to seem to forget there are working women without children. And this church isn't awful. After my initial frustration, I noticed two meetings for "Families of all ages, couples, and singles," which helps. But still, I have beef.

When someone walks into a church and sees everyone catered to but them, it makes them feel like they don't belong there. The women who aren't in a lovely Christian couple might have even more desire for a Christian community than moms who get together with their husbands for devotions every morning (is that what you guys do? I assume it's what you guys do. It sounds adorable).

I don't expect any church to have a group specifically for "25 year old women who married heathens and like to watch sitcoms," (although if your church does have that, call me), but I think we can do better.

The fact that women are the church's largest demographic, and single working women make up a huge chunk of that but aren't covered under any targeted groups like men or moms, says a lot about who the church is focusing on. Those women with free time, energy and skills. They want to care about your congregation and can contribute *so much*. The fact that I've seen churches across the country who KNOW it's the 21st century, but still plan women's Bible studies as if none of us work says that we still have a long way to go.

How do we solve it? Thanks for asking! There's a ton of ways. Here’s a few ideas:

1. Stop having your only women's group during the workday. Just. Stop. Or at least stop pretending that group is a viable option for every woman in the church.*

2. Have more groups that aren't focused on demographics. Maybe I missed it, but I don't remember Paul ever saying that the church is best when sectioned off into "30 something couples" and "Men 50 and older." Although I can see the value of having people who understand your life experience, that experience isn't defined solely through the US Census demographics. Sure, men probably don't understand your problems with patriarchy, and women might not understand guys’ issues, emotions? The draft? We'll probably understand better if we meet and talk about life together.

3. Have interest groups! I've heard of churches that have board game groups. I had a ton of fun meeting with friends and talking about God in Doctor Who. Some churches have knitting groups that sound super boring to me, but are a great way to meet and talk and share. Interests don't have any built in "you can't come," just a built in "You might not care." If people find things that they're passionate about, it can help other people come in.

Whew. That was long. And probably didn't cover everything. BUT if you took nothing else from this:

Where are the women? Not your Bible studies if you only put them on weekday mornings.

*Dean and Mindy’s note: If your goal is to reach only women 70 years and older, this is a perfectly reasonable time. If you want to get older women out at night, suggesting that younger women share rides could be a solution. What are your ideas?

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Mindy Goes to Church at the Airport

elevator to interfaith chapel at Midway Airport in Chicago
Midway Airport Chapel, Chicago, Illinois
I was at the gate, waiting to find out if I my standby status would get me on an earlier flight home, when I heard the announcement: “There will be a non-denominational Christian worship service in the airport  chapel in fifteen minutes, at 2:00. The half-hour service is open to all.”

I’d noticed the signs for the chapel and idly wondered if I should check it out, but I’d been hurrying to the gate -- and the gate agent told me it’d be about 45 minutes before my standby ticket could be confirmed for this flight. Spending half an hour in the airport chapel at Midway airport in Chicago sounded perfect.

About half of the United States' busiest airports have chapels with chaplains and regularly scheduled worship services. JFK in New York has four chapels (and worship times) for Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Islamic travelers. Most chapels, however, are designated as "interfaith," serving anyone who wishes to sit quietly and pray or meditate. I was curious what Midway offered.

I had to ask for directions from a rather bored airport police officer (who pointed out the very obvious signs), but after going down a corridor, into an elevator, and up one floor...I saw a doorway with a few tables of information around it: looked like a church entry hall to me.

When I went through the doors into the chapel itself, I noticed another woman was sitting on the floor by the windows across the room. She had a book open in her lap, and I realized she was reading Psalms quietly. Not wanting to intrude, I sat down on the chairs on the near side of the room after taking a few pictures. A few minutes later, a man in a clerical collar came in and introduced himself as Pastor Tom. As he shook my hand and invited me to move to the other side of the room, the woman stood up to greet Pastor Tom too.

“Renee! I’m glad to see you!” he said, and introduced us to each other. He and Renee continued a conversation that had obviously started last time they’d seen each other, and I gathered my various belongings to move closer to where she was. I heard her say she had to catch her flight and wouldn’t be able to stay for the worship service, and she left a moment later.

Pastor Tom excused himself and opened the door to a storage area. A few minutes later he brought out a cross and set it on the table at the front of the room, explaining that the room was used by Catholics, Protestants, Muslims (there was a stack of prayer rugs on a chair near the door), and a few Orthodox Jews, so religious symbols needed to be portable. He ducked back into the other room, reemerging in a black clerical robe.

We were waiting for anyone else who might come in -- occasionally employees or airport police come in when their schedules allow -- and Pastor Tom and I chatted for a few minutes.

He mentioned that many of the Protestant chaplains who serve at the Chicago airports are from the Evangelical Free Church. (Skyword, “the only authorized Christian Protestant chaplaincy privileged to serve the Chicago O’Hare and Midway airport communities,”* is a ministry of The Moody Church in Chicago). Dr. Hutz Hertzberg, the overall leader of Skyword chaplains, was ordained in the Evangelical Free Church (as was Dean).

Pastor Tom serves in the Reformed Baptist Church, but he mentioned that he grew up in a nominally Catholic family. He was quick to tell me that at least half of the people who come to the Protestant worship services at Midway, in his experience, are Roman Catholic, and he uses songs from the missal as well as hymns more commonly associated with Protestant worship. “God prepares us for the ministry He has for us,” Pastor Tom said.

After we talked for a few minutes, he began the worship service with a blessing from the book of Nehemiah. We sang “My Jesus, I Love Theeacapella from a laminated copy of the hymn. I wondered if we skipped the verse that begins, "I love Thee in life, I will love Thee in death" because some who attend the worship service are fearful about plane crashes. Still, we sang three verses together, and I thought we did a nice job with the harmony.

As he’d mentioned when telling me a little about Renee, part of the worship service was a time of sharing praise and prayer requests, and Pastor Tom asked if I had any prayer requests. I shared something, and he did as well. Then we prayed. During the prayer, a man came in and took a prayer rug from the chair near the door. Pastor Tom had mentioned earlier that this sometimes happened during worship services, so I wasn’t too surprised when Pastor Tom paused his prayer to ask the man to pray outside the chapel. The man didn’t seem bothered by this, and a few minutes later, he came again to quietly return his rug.

After our prayer (concluded with the Lord’s prayer, which in the printed program used the word “debts,” though Pastor Tom used the word “trespasses”), Pastor Tom said he’d give an abbreviated version of his sermon, since he didn’t want me to miss my flight. He read what he called “Paul’s resume” from Philippians 3: 4-14.

“What have we given up?” Pastor Tom asked. “What might we be called to give up? Am I willing to know Jesus in His suffering even to death?”

A few minutes after 2:00, he concluded the worship service with a benediction, and I hurried back to the gate to see if my standby ticket would get me a seat on the plane home. As I went, though, I was grateful for the opportunity to have a moment to worship in the brief time I was at the airport.

Service Length: about 20 minutes
Sermon Length: about 7 minutes
Visitor Treatment: Everybody who comes is a visitor, except the chaplains. Pastor Tom makes it a point to greet each person, introduce himself, and introduce each person who attends to the others in attendance
Followup by Tuesday Morning: none
Our Count: 2
Probable Ushers’ Count: 2
Snacks: Midway Airport doesn’t have refreshments, but they’re available at worship services at O’Hare
Musicians: vocals only
Songs: “My Jesus, I Love Thee”
Distance to Church: about 100 yards and up one level from my gate, 2,250 miles from home by car
Open WiFi: I couldn’t get the airport wifi to work for me
Tie/Suit Count: none

*from their website