January 2015 Underscore
January 2015 Underscore Story by Daniel Granderson When Tragedy Strikes a Town Near Us, How Should We Respond? Our world is hurting. The nightly news serves as a visual catalog of existential maladies. Tragedy has become its own kind of normal. But, what precisely is our Christian duty to witness to those suffering around us and, thus, extend a much-needed measure of agape love? Sheila Schlisner Hendricks, former executive director and a current board member of the Adventist Community Services Center of Greater Washington (ACSGW), asserts that there are more than 350 Bible verses that instruct Christians how to treat those in need. Matthew 25:35-40 ranks among the most poignant, as Jesus extols the virtues of kindness bestowed upon the hurting. “What better way to share and witness than to follow Jesus’ example and do what Jesus has asked us to do?” she asks. While we most certainly need to help those who daily struggle to get food, stay warm in the cold and get simple healthcare, sometimes there are tragedies that have a ripple effect on an entire community. Healing that hurt is a big job, but there is genuine evidence that good deeds undertaken in God’s name can incite powerful and widespread change. One Person Can Make a Difference For Alex Karras, a member of Potomac Conference’s Burnt Mills church in Silver Spring, Md., it all began with an email revealing that his colleague John Graham’s daughter was missing. By then the disappearance of University of Virginia student Hannah Graham on September 13, 2014, began to make national news. Karras emailed other Christians at his workplace to gauge interest in starting a prayer group specifically to ask God to intervene and comfort Graham and his wife, Sue. Many agreed to meet daily. “Here we are in a secular workplace and we are having all types of people joining the group because we are concerned about John’s daughter,” marvels Karras. Graham, who was aware of his colleagues’ prayers but did not personally join the meetings, expressed his appreciation. Even after the search for Graham’s daughter ended tragically, Karras realized the prayer group needed to continue. Not only did the Graham family need to remain in prayer, but also the daily meetings had brought together people in need of spiritual uplifting. “We are still praying … and we have no intention of stopping,” says Karras. “People who don’t go to church every week and who weren’t connected to God prior, are finding it refreshing because finally they are being connected to God.” Karras, a former theology major at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Md., has also since begun weekly Bible studies with some of the co-workers. “God calls us all to be missionaries,” he says, even if we don’t travel the world to do so. Where Two or Three are Gathered … In August 2014, much of America watched in horror as the national news relayed the first details of the tragedy in Ferguson, Mo., when police officer Darren Wilson killed teenager Michael Brown. Despite the hundreds of miles that separated her from the mayhem, Yolanda Banfield, who attends Allegheny East Conference’s (AEC) Emmanuel-Brinklow church in Ashton, Md., felt restlessness in her spirit. She reached out to two childhood friends: Rocky Twyman, a fellow prayer warrior and member of Potomac Conference’s Rockville (Md.) church, and Darryl Alexander, a member of the Northside church located near Ferguson. The trio decided to introduce the love of God into the chaotic situation. “We realized that we had to extend the love that we had to a hurting community,” says Banfield. “We wanted to galvanize the people of God and just be an extension of His love to the community.” The friends witnessed to hundreds of attendees at churches in Ferguson and in the community with a call for prayer and peaceful demonstration as their theme. The trio even gathered at a street memorial in Ferguson to sing and pray with those gathered, and to witness and distribute tracts. “We believe Adventists have to get involved in these kinds of issues. … And, people seemed to follow our example of praying before protesting even after we left,” says Twyman, who continues to pray for the Ferguson community.
A Congregation Unites a Community Pastor Keith Goodman, of AEC’s North Philadelphia church in Philadelphia, witnessed firsthand how tragedy can unite a community. The lesson followed the July 2014 deaths of three local children killed by two young men who lost control of a stolen vehicle. Members of Goodman’s church knew the childrens’ families and decided they should host the funeral. The service drew hundreds from the community, including the mayor and local policemen. And, with NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley covering the costs, the sad event also drew the press. During the service, Goodman’s congregation teamed with church members of other local denominations to provide food, ushers, support staff and nurses. Pastor Goodman says the team effort fostered newfound relationships and generated gateways of communication that allowed the Adventists to share their faith. “Our church, which has been in Philadelphia for decades, wasn’t on the city’s radar until we touched the community through this tragedy and opened people’s eyes up to the fact that this is a place of worship that cares enough to minister to people who are hurting,” notes Pastor Goodman. “Ministering to people with the compassion of Christ, in whatever form it takes, is what people are looking for. If you want to get people’s attention, you have to let them see the side of what they think Christ would be like. That’s why we should be doing more helping.” Actions are Within Your Reach Not every tragedy makes the nightly news, and there are many ways for Adventists to witness during difficult times. “If there’s a tragedy in the community—say a fire, shooting or death—while others are shaking their heads, we should be coordinating helpful efforts,” says Celeste Ryan Blyden, vice president for strategic communication and public relations for the Columbia Union Conference. “Being relevant today means we’ll participate in community meetings and events, march in community parades, show up at the local pancake breakfasts with smiles and food, and go where disaster strikes or violence occurs to hug, pray and serve.” Twyman agrees and summarizes: start developing relationships with the community before a tragedy happens. Banfield adds, “To project Christ, we have to be the church. We are the church. We have to walk like it. Go out into the world and just love on people.” In the end, says Pastor Goodman, it comes back to emulating Christ. “Adventists are a people who are called to go into the world. That is our mission,” he says.