Written by the Rev. Paul Kottke
Metropolitan District Superintendent
On July 8, a few folks from the Rocky Mountain Conference Office, the Metro District, and former Warren United Methodist Church members gathered at the Warren building to clean out store rooms and remove old office furniture. This clean up day was set in motion because St. Barnabas Episcopal Church just a few blocks from Warren is needing to do major work on their historic building – addressing asbestos mitigation and renovation. Beginning in August, St. Barnabas will be leasing the Warren building for a year or more. There has been a long history of mutual support in ministry between the two churches, so for Warren to be available for St. Barnabas at this time seems very appropriate. As well, it will be good to have a worshiping congregation in the building again.
As a former pastor of Warren UMC, I had very mixed feelings about being there on the clean up day. But rather than experiencing a "church that had died," what I experienced was a day of transformation – an awareness that the ministry to which Warren UMC had dedicated its life to is still occurring, simply in ways that are out of the ordinary.
Upon arriving at 9 a.m., a few of us went immediately to the basement store room that was filled with stuff, some of which easily had been there since the 1960s. As I opened the first file cabinet to empty it out, I saw a sample of a calling card and bulletin cover that I, as the new pastor in 1988, helped design with a graphic artist. This set the stage for me – the events of this day were no coincidence for me. God was very present.
There is a program in the basement of Warren known as the St. Francis Employment Center. This center works for finding employment specifically for recently released felons. The programs director of the employment center, Kris Dafni, assigned five of the clients, whom we paid, to help with the removal. The bottom line is that we could not have accomplished our work without the assistance of these five men. They absolutely worked their tails off to help with the clean up. One of the men told me that the St. Francis Center is a God-send, not only in finding jobs but in providing moral support during the early weeks of being released.
During a break, I happened to sit next to Robert. Robert’s face is completely filled with tattoos. I was careful not to ask prying questions, but he freely spoke of his situation. He had just been released three weeks prior, after serving 24 years for manslaughter. I could not even comprehend what that would be like. He said, "Very scary. For 24 years, I could not do anything without being told. Now, I am in a halfway house and all these choices overwhelm me." We sat in silence. He then said, "I'm not going back. I can't. I worked while in prison to learned some good skills. Not everyone does. But I did."
Again, silence. "It was OK that I was sent to prison, what I did was wrong," he continued. I asked, "What did you do?" "Manslaughter – I killed an uncle who raped and sodomized my sister and left her for dead. Rage just took me over. I killed him. I should have handled it differently but I didn’t. My sister, she survived. Is married to a police office. I just talked to her last week." I then turned to him and touched his chest saying, "Robert, there is a place of sacredness within you. Hold onto that place and it will guide you." We both looked deeply at each other. A sacred moment.
Later, an African-American man joined our effort. He introduced himself saying that he was a volunteer. I thought that he was surely another client of St. Francis. His name, Cameron. After we were all finished, Cameron and I were sitting at the table. I asked some general questions of Cameron. Turns out that he has his master’s degree in business, has been working with oil and gas, but that the corporate world is holding less interest for him.
I asked him why he volunteered with St. Francis? His response, "It not so easy as you would think to find volunteer work that makes you feel like you are making a difference. Being here in this church building, working with St. Francis does that for me. I had a hard childhood. My father was a drunk and would beat me. But somehow I survived and stayed focused." Cameron told me how he had read the Bible. He asked me why the church often used the Bible to pass judgement on other folks. "Jesus’ preached about love and grace."
It turned out that Cameron was well-read in religious literature – the Bible, the extra canonical books, the Nag Hammadi scrolls, the Koran, several of the Jewish literature. I asked him which seminary he had gone to. No, he had just read them on his own. Our conversation went on for another 30 minutes talking about church, about how we can bring wholeness and healing into our world, how we can resist the systems that try to fill us with fear. Cameron said, "I have never had a conversation like this before. Not even with my girlfriend." I gave Cameron some names and some references. I truly hope that someday, I will see Cameron as an active member of one of our United Methodist churches.
That day at Warren was a day of transformation for me. God was truly present.