Thursday, October 17, 2013

Dana Robert: Grannie and the Global Church

Today's blog post is written by Dr. Dana L. Robert.  Dr. Robert is the Truman Collins Professor of World Christianity and History of Missions and Director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at the Boston University School of Theology.

My Grannie died last year at 102. She was a lifelong Methodist. Born into the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, she spent her adulthood in the Methodist Church, and she died a United Methodist.  As a child in a Louisiana logging town, she attended camp meeting every year, and received perfect attendance pins for never missing Sunday School.  In 1932, as a young bride and mother, she signed my mother into the Cradle Roll and joined a ladies’ Sunday School class at First Methodist Church in Lake Charles.  The “Triple L Class”--Life, Love, and Loyalty--began as a group of young mothers and stayed together for 75 years.

Widowed herself in her early fifties, Grannie became a home care companion and baby sitter in order to survive financially.  Into her mid-eighties, she worked as a “helper” in the First Methodist day care.  She held toddlers when they cried. She taught pre-schoolers to tie their shoes, and set out the juice and cookies at snack time.  Even when babysitting fees were her sole income, she gave her widow’s mite to the church. When at age 98 she could no longer live alone, she moved into a nursing home on Medicaid.  The women at First United Methodist visited her until the day she died.  Triple L only ended after 2005 when Hurricane Rita destroyed the local infrastructure for the elderly.  The last few elderly widows lost their ability to live independently, and the Triple L Class died out.

What would someone like my grandmother think about 21st century Methodism  as a “global church”?  Even though Grannie never left the United States, she carried a vision of the church as a worldwide community.  She attended the summer schools of mission sponsored by the United Methodist Women.  She gave her dollar dues to Church Women United.  She sewed bean bags and “yo yo” dolls to raise money for outreach. She befriended a retired woman missionary, “Miss Julia,” who returned to Lake Charles after years of missionary work in pre-Castro Cuba.  In Grannie’s lifetime, she saw the steady expansion of her church from a regional to a national entity.  She knew herself to be part of a worldwide network, particularly of women and children, who followed Jesus.

But other aspects of global Methodism I don’t think she would have understood.  Grannie would not have appreciated the violent disagreements and cultural polarization at General Conferences.  She would think it wrong to tithe her widow’s mite so that bishops could attend ever-increasing numbers of international meetings.  If church leaders had asked her opinion, which of course they never did, she would have affirmed that feeding needy children was far more important than spending time arguing over clerical privileges, and launching global study commissions.

I am sure that were she alive today, my beloved grandmother would support the vision of United Methodism as a global community.  But she would see it through the lenses of mission, friendship, and fellowship in Jesus Christ.  Power politics, big expenditures for corporate-style meetings, and the accoutrements of status and privilege would be foreign to Grannie.  Life, love, and loyalty. . . the church as family. . . this is what it meant for her to be a “global” United Methodist.

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