How a church chooses to adapt to change
is a significant indicator of its future.
Every church experiences change throughout the life of its ministry. The significance for a congregation is that they can choose how they will respond. How does a congregation transcend the complex cycles of change, especially when change begins outside of its walls in a world beyond its control? What are the new roles of the church which exists in a community and culture that is vastly different from when it was first established? This project seeks to answer such compelling questions by presenting a reflection on the new roles for the church by exploring the environment of Cambridge United Methodist Church, located in Ninety Six, South Carolina. The church and its surrounding community have experienced a dramatic change.
Engaging in pastoral ethnography (allowing people to articulate their own stories about themselves, their faith traditions, and experiences) pastor and people are weaving a new story together through this project. The data retrieved, revealing the complexity of human life, through interviews and discussions throughout the church and community, tell the compelling story of the church.
In the early 1900s, Cambridge United Methodist Church was built by the local textile mill next to a Baptist Church. For nearly a century, Cambridge was faithful to its calling, caring for its surrounding neighbors. The identity of the church was tied to its connection to the mill. The role of the church was to provide Christian worship and education in the Methodist tradition for the workers in the mill.
Influence of the Mill
The Ninety Six Textile Mill weaved its profound impact expertly upon the community, its culture, and even the church, demanding sameness, segregation, and separation. Privilege made its mark, as discrimination stained the social fabric of both community and church, creating inequality among race, class, creed, and ability. African Americans were only allowed to work in all of the Southern white-only mill enterprises after the enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Baptist church burned in the 1940s and rebuilt outside the mill village. Today, there are also four other churches on the edge of the mill village, a Church of God, a Pentecostal Holiness church, and two African American churches. The textile industry has moved to other markets, and Cambridge United Methodist Church remains in the center of a dramatically different community.
It is important to note, those who worked in the mill remember their experience with affection. The institution provided everything for its worker and the family. The mill brought prosperity to the region. Many mill workers moved to the town of Ninety Six from local farms nearby. Before that, the town was a smaller rural community. Employment in the mill increased not only the population but also the number of housing units available for families.
Life on the family farm was hard work. According to one senior woman interviewed, “her family was never hungry,” she said, “we always had plenty of fresh vegetables and meat to eat. We just had no money.” She continued after her laughter;
“Working at the mill was good money to those of us coming from a family farm. They provided everything in walking distance from your home. You could walk to work, to church, to the grocery store, the clothing store – everything you needed was in the mill community. You also got to pick which church you liked to attend. Wherever you fit in is where you went to church. Plus, the mill provided a semi-pro baseball league – that’s all the entertainment you ever needed.” – Helen Belue. 2017. Interview by author. Ninety Six. March 22.
The old pictures of the mill workers hanging in the hallways of Cambridge are a visual reminder of the belonging many members feel among their ancestors. Cambridge must take that sense of belonging and create new connections within the surrounding community by becoming a place where everyone is welcome.
New Roles For The Church
Sharing New Vision and Mission
Exploring the environment of the church through the lens of its past is helpful to understand the dominant influence of the mill. The authority of the mill had a long reach. The original call of the church is no longer operative. The mill in Ninety Six is gone, it burned down in 2005, but its influence lingers on.
The church must now ask itself, should it move as well? A decision to move or stay reflects the identity of its current membership. The membership is free to move. By choosing to stay, the congregation would be revealing that they are committed to getting to know new neighbors, and are willing to be intentional in welcoming strangers into their fellowship.
This choice would be a radical departure from the influence of the mill, which kept strict limits on the community as to who was in and who was out. Will the identity of the church reflect the way of the authoritative mill, or will the church become known as a place of belonging for everyone in the changing community? Cambridge has chosen to stay in the community and to grow.
A New Strategy For a Way Forward
The church must take a bold and faith-filled step forward, shifting away from the dominance of the mill and its culture (when one person was included another was always excluded) toward what Peter Block calls, creating “a future distinct from the past.” Cambridge must be intentional, moving into the community with new strategies that enable a more inclusive loving language of welcome and acceptance to guide future ministries of the church. Within this project, one new approach for Cambridge is presented that can be used as a catalyst for creating additional future plans. A changing community presents the church with multiple opportunities for ministry. The new strategy given in this project is an outflow from discussions among members at Cambridge seeking to understand their community and offer a place of belonging. Such a way forward is reflective of the way God works. God’s way of relating provides relationship and hospitality to all persons over and against the direction of demands, control, and condemnation. God’s welcome extends to everyone through grace, whoever we are, and wherever we are, in relationship to God. As the congregation steps into the community, a new vision for the church will arise. The church must choose how it will be involved in the changing community.
Inclusiveness Verses Discrimination
Out of the dominance of the mill, there comes a temptation for the church to embrace a false identity. If the church adopts power and control as a way of relationship and equates it with the will of God, such idolatry will lead to separation, alienation, division, and disunity. Inclusiveness is God’s way of a relationship. The congregation can choose to be an isolated group with starry-eyed memories of the past, or they can shift the mindset toward a future of inclusion. The United Methodist Church Book of Discipline says that the church is called to inclusiveness from the beginning. God made a diverse people and saw it was good. Cambridge must recognize difference and embrace diversity. The Discipline affirms;
“Inclusiveness means openness, acceptance, and support that enables all persons to participate in the life of the Church, the community, and the world; therefore, inclusiveness denies every semblance of discrimination”
A new role for Cambridge is to adopt the practice of inclusiveness over and against the counterproductive influence of discrimination from the mill. When discrimination dominates inside the church, the gospel is distorted. Inclusiveness means freedom for all people to have access to God. The Christian church is called to be the church exemplifying Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor. The civil rights laws enforced necessary change within America’s society. The church must applaud the laws and go beyond them — offering a relationship to all persons, regardless of race, faith, or intellectual ability.
Encounter and New Initiative
There are new opportunities for ministry within the community–some are evident, many are hidden. What will it take to discover the unknown possibilities? One new discovery came during an unexpected encounter with a young woman with a small tattoo. The tattoo was a blue puzzle piece that silently revealed a genuine need not readily apparent. The brief encounter occurred in a grocery store after the teller began scanning items with her tattooed hand. The puzzle piece was inked between her thumb and first finger–small enough to go unnoticed; however, it was designed to identify the difference of Autism and placed in a spot everyone could see. The young woman wanted someone to notice; she was not invisible.
During a group interview at the church, the pastor and members began discussing ways Cambridge could minister in the community for a new way forward. Literacy, health and wellness, and bullying were topics listed for discussion. Gradually, bullying became the focus of attention. During a discussion, it was discovered that what connected Cambridge to the problem of bullying was Autism.
The congregation at Cambridge has a direct link to families with Autism. One leader among us said, “I can name a number of families in our community, without including the several families within our church, whose child has been bullied because they have been diagnosed with Autism.” After listening and looking at the community, the church has chosen to embrace a new role of assisting the families and the caregivers of those who are protecting young children from being bullied because of Autism.
Cambridge must assist families traveling the puzzling journey of Autism, offering genuine hope and change for their lives. The effort flows from the church’s mission statement, “To Touch the Lives of Others with the Love of Christ.” This new initiative is a support system that creates a network of caring and sharing within the community.
Excursus: Understanding Autism
One puzzle of Autism is that there is not one cause. The complexity of the intellectual disorder contributes to the difficulty of making sense of the child’s behavior. Although there is an identifiable range of common symptoms on the Autism Spectrum, each individual diagnosed is unique. No two children are exactly alike. However, each individual is a child of God, to be loved, accepted, cared for, and protected. The same is true for every family and caregiver. Each will be at a different point in dealing with the difficulties. Because of that, as Ellen Notbohm explains, “Child or adult, each will have a unique set of needs.” With this in mind, the church must connect with the Autistic community offering a flexible plan of engagement. Feelings of exhaustion, caregiver burnout, as well as elevated stress levels, can be found among both parents with children on the autism spectrum. Ineffective coping skills and bad judgments from the community can break families apart. These are families with the human longing to belong. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), estimates that one in every 68 children born today is affected by Autism. The growing number of children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is expected to have almost doubled in the last ten year period of data collection by the CDC.
Response: Creating an Autism Task Force
In response to the discovered need, the congregation together with the leadership of the pastor chose to create an Autism Task Force to guide the church in becoming a community partner for the autism community. Families navigating the issues of autism are our sisters and brothers traveling an arduous journey, and Cambridge UMC has the will and the resources to bring the necessary care and support to assist them on their journey.
The Autism Task Force began as a recruiting group within the church–identifying member’s gifts and talents and recruiting other members to be involved. The group is more than a planning committee. They must be an action group to move the process forward and evaluate its effectiveness. The success of this initiative depends significantly on a collaborate effort.
The power of collective imagination can spark new energy for an active outreach ministry which assists those who are often hidden within the community, because of harmful acts, stigmatization, and despair. The congregation at Cambridge can learn to share the transforming power of compassion with persons outside of their own family, and their own church.
Cambridge UMC has formed their Autism Task Force with the slogan: “Moving Beyond Inclusion – Offering Compassion, Belonging, Friendship, and Love.” The planning process has led to scheduling an Autism Awareness Sunday, an Autism Family Fun Day, and a Cub Scout program designed for families with Autism. The new initiative has been embraced, and implementation has begun. Additionally, the Autism Task Force team members can become community partners assisting other churches, schools, government, and businesses.
Theology of Belonging
Wading into the area of supporting families dealing with mental health issues can be a daunting challenge. It is understandable for those in the church to be hesitant, nervous, or even fearful amid the enormous good work of the Health Care Industry. What difference can the church possibly make?
Jean Vanier’s insight, offers a reality check;
“We are all called to do, not extraordinary things, but very ordinary things, with an extraordinary love that flows from the heart of God.”
In this project, ‘Belonging,’ is the primary relational practice of sharing God’s love in ordinary ways to persons who are caring for those with Autism. Caretakers, families, and autistic individuals do not have to “prove their worth” when they are accepted, welcomed, and free to be themselves. The church must follow God’s way of welcoming others with open arms. Cambridge is essential for the community, bringing God’s redemptive work of healing, grace, and love. Belonging is relationship–humans belong to one another, created in the Imago Dei.
Belonging also involves friendship. To be a friend, you must be missed if you are not around. If you are not missed, you do not belong. Friends miss one another when they are not with each other. Building a support system for caretakers in the Autism community will also involve creating friendships with others–getting to know them and spending time with them. If you do not see the individual with special needs, you cannot get to know them, and a relationship of friendship cannot develop. A theology of belonging prescribes a support system that is welcoming, affirming, and relational–where friendships can grow, persons can be seen, heard, and missed when they are apart; then embraced, and accepted when back together again.
For a Christian, friendship is a gift to be received. It begins with God offering the gift of friendship to all, able-bodied or disabled. But it is the intellectually disabled who, Lorraine Cuddeback sees, as providing a witness to how one receives and trusts God’s friendship. Cuddeback argues that because our primary relationship with God comes as a gift, “the act of receiving should have priority not the act of giving.” For Cuddeback, differences shape the way we both experience and respond to the offer of God’s grace. She points out that there is a tendency to “gloss over difference in a way that obscures the risks and vulnerabilities of friendship.” It is through friendship that all of us (regardless of disability) will be able to see ourselves as God sees us.
Clearly, within Western society, persons dealing with intellectual disability, experience exclusion, oppression, and even hostility. A theology of belonging will both guide and enable an effective praxis for Cambridge to faithfully participate in a mission to their community, sharing God’s inclusive love. There is a modern sensibility that disability is a problem to be solved. This project shifts the focus away from caring for those who have “problems” towards building relationships and affirming the fundamental equality among all persons regardless of difference.
Families navigating the puzzling journey of Autism face enormous struggle and long for a place of belonging–to be seen, to be heard, and to know someone cares. This project helps the church discover new roles amid the drastic community change. It will also help the church create a new identity within its surrounding community. Cambridge United Methodist Church can be known as a place that accepts all people–including those with disabilities. The project can be reviewed, successes can be celebrated, and new strategies can be created, “To Touch the Lives of Others with the Love of Christ.”
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