Converge is an annual event in which Missouri Conference pastors are encouraged to come together and encounter God. Rev. Jim Downing, chair of the Order of Elders, is the primary organizer, and is supported by Missouri Conference Director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence Karen Hayden.
The event traditionally provides time for worship, time for learning, and time to connect with fellow pastors or just relax. Previous locations of the event have included First UMC in Sedalia, Saint Paul UMC in Joplin, Woods Chapel UMC in Lees Summit and Morning Star UMC in O’Fallon. This year it was at La Croix UMC in Cape Girardeau, hosted by Senior Pastor Ron Watts and Executive Pastor Bruce Baxter.
Next year Converge will be back at First UMC in Sedalia on September 12-14, 2016.
On the BorderWhen Missouri Bishop Robert Schnase had an opportunity to address the Missouri Conference clergy at Converge, he didn’t give reports, recommendations or platitudes. He shared a personal story, and his feelings about borders.
Bishop Schnase was born in Eagle Pass, Texas, 400 yards from the Mexican border. When he visited the hospital where he was born recently, it is abandoned. Behind is a 20 foot tall steel fence that didn’t used to be there.
“To people who grew up here, the presence of that fence is insane,” Bishop Schnase said.
Cactuses grow on the roof. As he looked at it he considered how different his life would have been if he had been born 400 yards to the south as Roberto Sanchez, and what implications that would have had regarding his educational opportunities, economic opportunities – even his mortality.
He went fishing in a nearby lake, one of his favorite places to fish. He showed a picture of a large fish that he caught there, and noted that the lake is catch and release only.
“There is something about getting up early, focusing all your energy on catching a fish, and then saying thank you and releasing it back into water,” Bishop Schnase said. “Many organizations I’ve spent time with have quality of catch and release.”
From the lake you can see three tethered blimps floating in the sky. They are monitoring the border with sophisticated surveillance equipment. He was there at the same time presidential candidate Donald Trump was in Laredo, talking about building a wall.
“As I looked out over the vast expanse of desert, it struck me that all over the United States people are talking about how this area is what they need to be afraid of,” he said.
While in Texas, he met up with some old friends that he gets together with every year, and they canoed through Big Bend National Park on the Rio Grande River, which serves as the border between the United States and Mexico. In places the river is as narrow as a small creek, and often very shallow. There are majestic canyons alongside of it, but no fences or walls.
“During the course of the day we would cross the border between the countries a couple of hundred times,” he said.
Being concerned about people across the border, and how they affect the job markets and other things is not unique to the United States. People in Panama talk about Columbia, people in Mexico talk about Central America. In Costa Rica, they talk about Nicaragua. Bishop Schnase shared a personal experience about this.
While taking an immersive Spanish class in Costa Rica, he saw a brochure for a tarapon fishing trip. He inquired about the trip and found it to be expensive, but if he took public transport to get there, it would be much cheaper. Before he left on the trip, several people at his Spanish school cautioned him that he was going near Nicaragua, and he should be careful.
The bus ride took several hours. At one point three rowdy, drunken men boarded. Before long one turned his attention to Bishop Schnase, and started a rant about how he didn’t want to share a bus with an American, that America is the root of all of Nicaragua’s problems, Americans are killers, and so on. Bishop Schnase realized that no one was going to do anything, and started considering contingencies. He remembered advice given to him by his friend who was into karate, to keep physical confrontations close so to minimize the force of any blows or kicks, and to use his size to his advantage. Then he was struck by absurdity of physically fighting these three men on his own.
Then he considered how he’s a marathon runner, and if he just had a few steps, he could probably outrun the three drunks if need be. About then the bus stopped and the driver said, “Los Chiles.” He was at the end of the line, his stop, and in a small village without electricity, cloaked in absolute darkness. To take off running also seemed preposterous.
Instead he approached a woman whom he had spoken to briefly as they were waiting for the bus, and told her that he needed help finding his hotel. She sent a couple of teenage boys who were there with her family to greet her to escort him to his hotel, and said she was sorry about the guys on the bus – that they were just drunk. He spent the rest of the evening having a relaxing meal with a cook, who was from China, and a young local man who would be his fishing guide the next day. The fishing conditions weren’t good the next day, and he caught no fish, but had a good day with the guide viewing nature in this remote area. His return trip to San Jose was uneventful.
He later reflected on what had happened, and how the men on the bus had done him no harm, he was then shown hospitality by strangers, and he left the experience with some insight on what it is like to be despised by someone who doesn’t even know your name, for actions that you had nothing to do with.
“An addictive quality of fishing is you never know what the mystery of the water will give you,” he said.
Dispelling the IllusionDisillusionment isn’t something most people aspire towards, but Rev. Nannette Roberts said sometimes it is necessary.
Roberts is the lead pastor for Grace United Methodist Church in Olathe, Kansas, and was the keynote speaker at Converge in Cape Girardeau.
“Disillusionment is not so bad – it is a loss of illusionsillusions about our world, ourselves, or our God,” she said. “It happens when God does not conform to our expectations. Disillusionment happens when we turn away from God that is supposed to be to the God that is. Did God fail to come when I called? Perhaps God isn’t my minion...so who is God? God is finely, utterly beyond my control.”
Roberts shared the story of one of her church members, Jeff Warren, who played basketball for the University of Missouri-Columbia in the early 1990s. He was still in top physical condition, but last year has was diagnosed with non-hopkins lymphoma. He tried many treatments – none of them worked.
“He finally accepted it, but his pastor (me) refused to,” Roberts said. Warren had been everything you could hope for in a church member, and was an outstanding father to boys in the sixth and third grade. He asked Roberts to talk to his children, so she did.
“I said ‘Mitch, where are you with God?’ and he said ‘I don’t like God to much right now.’ I said, ‘Sometimes I don’t either.’ He said ‘You shouldn’t say that, we might get struck by lightning’.”’
She told him she needed him in youth group. He replied, “Even if I don’t like God very much?” She said, “Especially because you don’t like God very much.”
After Jeff died this summer, Roberts said she was mad at God, because Jeff wasn’t here, and because Jeff was such a good church man, and such a good father, and men like that are hard to find. His son Mitch asked her, “What good is it to have faith in God like my Dad did, and then you just die?”
“I refused to answer, because I trust God more than I trust me,” Roberts said. “I trust God with Mitch more than I trust my ability to solve Mitch’s problems.”
Roberts on School ShootingsTwo days before the shooting on the Oregon college campus, Annette Roberts made a passing reference to school shootings during one of her addresses to the group at Converge. Roberts said she is tired of everyone but the church being blamed for school shootings.
“Why isn’t church being blamed for school shootings? Because we’re not part of the conversation, because we’re not relevant,” Roberts said.
To be more relevant, her church created a peace academy for children, trying to teach children to live like Jesus. Parents had to be involved, too. Soon, single people without children were asking to be involved.
“We all need to learn how we can be in disagreement with people without hating them,” Roberts said. “Maybe as a church we can do that. I get together with high school principal, and ask how we can be a proactive voice with a community of kids who have isolated themselves through social media.”