Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Hometown Heroes

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA
Prairie City Church of the Brethren; Prairie City, Iowa
My home church (There's a cow lot across the road...)
In my inaugural Ethiopia post, I told a little story about how a dear sweet grandmotherly saint called me into the ministry when I was in high school, and how that story connects with the practice of communal discernment, and how that same discipline helped bring about the upcoming trip to Ethiopia. Well, I'm going to tell another story about my home congregation in rural Iowa and why they continue to bless my life to this day.

Back in January, my wife and I decided that our entire family would be making this trip. Because of the significant cost of airfare, one of the conditions in our making that decision was that we were going to reach out to my congregation back home in Iowa for financial support. The letter which came out of that was actually the source out of which I took some of the text for the inaugural Ethiopia post, linked above. It was, as I called it at the time, a missionary support letter in the fine tradition of the Apostle Paul. Theological storytelling with a practical and rhetorical point. When it came down to how much support to ask for, I stalled in my letter-writing task. My wife and I deliberated a bit and I decided to ask for - what is for this small, rural congregation - a decent chunk of money. We printed the letter off on nice stock, stuck it in an envelope, and dropped the letter in the mail (old school!), and prayed. When my pastor, Tim Peter, read the letter a few days later and saw the amount, he gulped and put it on the docket for the next church board meeting.

The response from the congregation has turned into a blessed story in and of itself in the overall story of our upcoming trip to Ethiopia...

When the church board met in early February, the discussion didn't even include if they would help support us financially, but how. This set off a flurry of fundraising activity in the church which, over the next three months, would include four events. The first two events were done entirely within the congregation before people started thinking bigger. I grew up in a small town, two small towns actually since my school district was a combination of two towns, Prairie City and Monroe (and Reasnor). In April, a young woman from the church just a few years younger than me, who now manages with her husband the church camp we grew up attending, wrote me with some interview questions for an article she was writing for the town papers, to help spread the news about the next fundraising event, which they were holding in town (the church is five miles south of town). After the iconic shot of the grain elevators in my hometown, you'll find the article written by Betsy Kain that appeared in the Prairie City News and Monroe Mirror...

I have fun stories about these grain elevators..for another time...
(Photo by Mattofwashington, under CC license)
Prairie City native Brian Gumm, along with his wife Erin and daughter Lauren, will spend July in Ethiopia as Gumm teaches “Introduction to Conflict Transformation” at Meserete Kristos College in the city of Debre Zeit. In support of their mission, Prairie City Church of the Brethren invites you to a Mother’s Day Sweet Treats event on Saturday, May 7, 9 a.m.-12 p.m., at the Odd Fellows Lodge on Jefferson Street, one block west of the square. Handmade quilts and cards, homemade pies, cookies, cakes, cards and more will be available with all proceeds supporting the Gumms.

“When I hear future-oriented things about my life come out of the mouths of my brothers and sisters in Christ, I start listening with more than my ears,” said Gumm, who was first prompted to ministry by the late Roberta Elrod of Prairie City. “I start listening with prayers and more discussion in the church.”

Gumm’s call ultimately landed him at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Harrisonburg, Va., where he is a restorative justice and seminary student. He met Solomon, an Ethiopia native, during his first year.

“Solomon expressed a deep love for Ethiopia and its great need for peacebuilding education in rapidly growing churches,” said Gumm.

After a year of conversations and promptings from Solomon, Gumm listened with more than his ears again and took steps to make Ethiopia a reality. The family departs July 2 and will arrive in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. After a week in the city, and some volunteer work for the Mennonite Central Committee (similar to Church World Service), the Gumms will move on to Debre Zeit as Brian begins teaching his course.

The experience fulfills a practicum requirement for Gumm, but he and his family see the opportunity closely connected with all aspects of their lives – personal, family, academic, ministerial and missional.

“As a father, I want my daughter's imagination for how God works all over the world to not be boxed in by her citizenship as an American,” said Gumm. “In similar ways, I hope to bring this experience ‘back home’ in ways that help the churches I know well here in the States see God's action in new ways.”

Both Gumm and his wife Erin, working toward her MA in counseling, will graduate from EMU next spring.

“We have no idea what’s coming next,” said Gumm. “But my roots are in Prairie City, and the churches of town should know I truly value their influence in shaping my life.”

If you are interested in supporting the Gumms, but are unable to attend the May 7 fundraiser, please contact Prairie City Church of the Brethren at or 994-2940.
When I talked to my mom the day after this particular event, she said that a few guys at the farmer's co-op even wandered over from the very grain elevators pictures above, to get some treats and coffee. After this planned third event, some more folks got another idea. In my "other hometown," Monroe, they often have city-wide garage sales. There was one going on either this same weekend in early May or the weekend following. Anyway, a few people from church quickly threw together a garage sale whose proceeds would go to supporting our trip! And some women from church showed up with a bunch of food and made it an impromptu fourth fundraising event. (One of these garage sales with amazing food from the church ladies happened in my very garage as a child. Not being at this one tugged at my heart and stomach.)

After all this tremendous work, the church still had a ways to go toward reaching the goal which they'd committed to. Before I proceed, though, it should be said that there was other fundraising activity going on in the congregation for a very worthy cause, helping a family whose house had burnt down around this same period of time. So to be "seeing" all this happening from Virginia was a gift to behold. My dad said a few times, "I've never seen this church rally around something quite like this before." He mentioned the fact that it wasn't just a few people in the congregation, but the whole body of people.

So with this gap to cover before reaching the goal, the board moved to close it in a way that touched my heart even deeper. Both the dear woman who informally called me into the ministry and my grandfather, Max Gumm (who pastored at the church before I was born), passed away in the past year and their estates had each gifted to the church. The board moved to use funds from each estate to reach the goal, fulfilling the bold request I had prayerfully made back in late January.

Theologically, what my home congregation has done is draw on the cloud of witnesses in that small church, two of whom are no longer with us, in order to be the body of Christ in this particular task. They've done so in ways that resonate deeply with my own call to ministry. While I never imagined how magnificent their response would come to look, I never doubted their support for me, my family, and our ministry. It's my hope that their work is stewarded well by my family's short work in Ethiopia, but also in the bonds that we're forming in the global church which will hopefully last well beyond this coming July. I hope for their blessing to us to work the other way as well.

So this is my public love/"thank you" letter to my home congregation, the Prairie City Church of the Brethren. God has truly met me in you people from the time of my birth even 'til now, and I pray it continues to be so.

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