Like a good neighbor…..

I knew something was wrong in the way that he said my name. “Honey,” he said, “did you hear about a stabbing in Highland Park?” I said, yes I had but the news didn’t share anything other than the fact that the husband was dead and that the wife was in the hospital. “Maria, that was Rod and Dina.” My head started spinning. No, not Rod and Dina! What happened? Was it a break in? Where were the kids?

The Steeles are staples of our church and friends of our family. We had just been in their house in May for our annual tradition of tea, which celebrated Dina and her mother’s trip with my husband to Wesley’s England. They were one of the first families to embrace the interracial marriage between me and Jeff. More importantly, they were staples of our youth ministry, their children were beloved, and their footprint in the community was even larger. As the news spread that it was a tragedy at the Steele home, people gathered around the crime tape and prayed.

I watched our church go from the “Methodist Church” to the neighborhood church. Our staff was there beside Dina and the kids within moments of notification. They didn’t ask questions, they didn’t assign blame, they did what they were called to do–be the living embodiment of Christ in the midst of despair. Our communication team, made sure that the message got out, that our doors were open for those dealing with the grief and shock of realizing that a man who had just led over 100 children through confirmation, had first attacked his wife and then turned the knife on himself. People who were not members of our congregation heard it on the streets, on the news, and at the coffee shop, that HPUMC was everybody’s church and if you needed to talk, or sit or just pray–we were here.

My husband, despite hearing of Rod’s death only two hours before, stood in front of a crowd and presented the Heart House with a $10,000 check for their junior high school facilities. As he proclaimed a faith in a living God who sought the safety and protection of all God’s children only I knew that he was re-living all the times he joked and shared with Dina and Rod and slowly coming to grips that Rod would not be taking the pictures of our visits to his house any longer. Yet, he refused to skip this luncheon because of the testimony it would provide to the community. When we parted after lunch, he went to Dina’s bed-side and I drove around her house and prayed.

As we prepared for the prayer service the next day, our friends at University Park United Methodist sent us dinner, knowing that it would be a long night. Friends from across the Methodist Connection, called, facebooked, prayed, and reached out. Lay women walked about the house, praying and cleaning. Meals were cooked. Calls were made. Counselors were called. Staff cancelled vacation or came back early. As I moved from task to task, greeting those who came for prayer; hugging those who seemed lost; and holding my husband after a homily that reminded us that death does not have the final say, I was, for the first time, in a very long time proud to be a Methodist woman.

Be clear, I am not having a Michelle Obama moment. I love being a Methodist, I have just been really frustrated of late. So watching us be the Body was exciting and refreshing. I am not just extolling the outstanding work of my colleagues and friends at Highland Park. I know this kind of in the ‘world’ making a difference ministry is happening all over this country and world. It is what Katie Klein is all about as she ministers to bikers in Denton. Its what Rhoda Howell is about in Georgia and Jay Voorhees is about in Tennessee. Its what Rebecca is doing in New York, Telley in South Carolina,  and Greg is doing in New Mexico. In Minnesota, the United Methodist Churches are providing shelter and flood buckets. In Colorado, we are standing on the front lines with those who have lost their homes. But I had forgotten this reality. Perhaps for too long I had focused on what was wrong and not what was right. Perhaps I had failed to see that our fundamentals were still strong, even if there were hidden underneath the muck of administrative mediocrity and mendacity. It is so easy to forget that at our heart: we are good neighbors.Its not that we are the only denomination that does this but we are the only one founded on the principle of that the world is our parish. As a fundamental element of who we know ourselves to be, we remain ready to reach out and take care of those in need. It is perhaps our most lasting and visible connection to the vision of John Wesley and it is sadly the one that too often that some of our leaders ignore.

This week, the South Central Jurisdictional Conference will convene in Oklahoma City. Yet before we can get started, on Monday the show down between Bishop Earl Bledsoe and the Committee on the Episcopacy will take place. Bus loads of laity and clergy, teams of lawyers and advocates will descend upon St. Luke United Methodist Church to ‘fight’ for or against the Bishop to retain his job. Despite Wes McGruder’s urging that I ‘spell’ out my position on this whole debacle, up until now I have resisted. I have been coy, strategically ambiguous, and danced around the issue.

Well, Wes, here it is: I am mystified how in the battle for life or death, for souls won and lost; people fed or hungry that we as a conference have the time to put this much energy focused on one individual’s job. Frankly, I am beyond the point of caring about the outcome of Monday, because this week I was reminded what is really at stake. Bottom line: ministry is not about vestments; its not about parking spaces; its not about appointments, or managerial style– its about answering the call to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a hurting world. Not one of the hours spent fighting over  Bishop Bledsoe’s future is going to make a difference to Dina Steele and her children as they try to come to grips with the loss of Rod. All the pie charts in the world about vital congregations and membership growth, will make sure that little Rosa has a safe place to go while her mother works those two jobs to keep a roof over her head. Arguments about managerial style and miscommunication will not help the drought stricken farmer who doesn’t know whether to sell or to stick it out. Honestly, I am having a hard time justifying the opportunity cost to defend someone’s employment when the DFW unemployment rate is 7.1% and the rate of unemployment for African American males is 17.5% and less than 40% of our kids are graduating from high school. I have a hard time understanding the need to take busloads of folks to Oklahoma City, when  those same folks could build a house or a new youth facility for Katie Klein’s church so that they don’t have to fight it out with the yellow jackets and wasps just to have Bible Study. The lawyers taking their day off to work pro-bono, well I am sure there are some young men and women who need your counsel more desperately.

Call me old fashioned. Call me naive. Call me politically suicidal but I am just not sure any of the events of Monday will feed, clothe, school, house, or transform one life OUTSIDE OF THE CHURCH. And please don’t give me the ‘ordering the church’ argument. It is amazing to me how John, Charles, and a rag tag band of laity were able to spread Methodism without a general agency in charge of discipleship, travel, or expense reports. Let’s not confuse the HUMAN invention of the organization with the Divinely appointed call of the Body of Christ. While the Church of England wanted to fight about procedures, policies, etc., Wesley was off doing the work of the prophetic and ministering to thousands while churches were empty. I believe in efficient, well run organizations–but they can only be that way when the leaders remember that they are servants appointed only for a short time to further the MISSON of the Church.

If you were expecting me to take sides, I won’t and I can’t. There is too much blame to go around and frankly too much work to do. I’ve got some neighboring to do!

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About Maria Dixon Hall

The Rev. Dr. Maria Dixon Hall is an associate professor of organizational communication/Non-Profit studies at Southern Methodist University and a commissioned deacon of the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church

  • Lori Cousino

    Amen, sister! May we grow to be the hands, feet and heart of Christ plus nothing else. Praying with you.

  • Tom Robinson

    Thank you for reminding me of the importance and power of the message with which we have been entrusted to share. So be it.

  • Cynthia Astle

    Maria, I think you’ve nailed it. My prayers are with the Steele family in this tragedy, and my profound gratitude to HPUMC and all its members who are ministering to them. I didn’t know there would be the big hullabaloo you describe up in OKC on Monday, but I’m still not going to SCJ until Tuesday afternoon. Whatever happens with the bishop’s appointment, happens. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of ministry for everyone to go around. Blessings!

  • Cathy Morgan

    Thank you Maria for such touching words. My heart was broken when I learned about the Steele family. Rod was truly such a kind and gentle servant of God. Your words of thoughtfulness and encouragement spurs me on to be that ‘good neighbor’ as well.

    Blessings to you and Jeff.

  • Denise Peckham

    What an honestly refreshing word. It’s been a long time since my heart has stirred in such a way. Could we catch the vision of the reign of God and be the people we were called to be? I am foolish enough to believe we can.
    Thank you for your courageous reflection.

  • Sara Ivey

    When churches are run like businesses, we risk failing to do God’s work of healing. I hope whatever the outcome, leaders have prayerfully made decisions for the greater glory of God, not the greater glory of the organization of an institution.

  • Glinda

    What then shall we say, my sister, of the organized struggle for justice that even allows you to speak from the pulpit of a great institution like HPUMC. Before you were welcomed there by your neighbors and embraced by your friends, people organized, got on buses, made signs and cried out in a loud voice for justice…..for equality….for freedom……In so many ways that same freedom to finish out a job began for God’s people is what’s at stake on Monday

    • Maria Dixon

      Sister Glinda– The Bishop believes he did a good job, so do many laity and clergy. There are many who are on the opposite side. What the Bishop himself has pointed out is that this for him is an issue of due process in a personnel matter. There are people of both races on each side of this issue, including his lawyer who is from Highland Park United Methodist Church. Your invocation of the issue of organized struggle, justice and what you believe is my pulpit in Highland Park appears an attempt to calling me out to perhaps indicate that I had a) forgotten my African American roots because of some new found privilege (ie. the sell out card) or b) Taking the side of oppression (ie. the bougie sell out card). On both accounts should this be the intent, I am deeply troubled. My family and I are from Alabama. My uncle hired Dr. King at Dexter Avenue Church. Another Uncle served in the first cross-cultural appointments in the UMC in Alabama and I know the suffering he faced. I have had crosses burned in the front yard of my sorority house and sit as only one of 17 African Americans out of 700 on the faculty of SMU. As the Gospel song says, you don’t know my struggles or journey, so let’s not pull the implied race/oreo/sell out card. My commitment to justice has never been questioned and should not be questioned now. What I am questioning is institutional priorities. What I am questioning is the attention over a personnel matter that is taking the front seat when some many others are equally germane. Honestly, I am concerned that African American female clergy have never been asked by any of the last three African American Bishops to lead any of the larger congregations in the conference–now that’s something to think about, that’s a justice issue I would get on a bus for. This is not about race. This is about managerial style and metrics. Clergy feeling slighted and others feeling ignored. This is about due process but it should not bring our entire church (which it has) to a stand still.

  • Jeff C

    When troubles arise the Purpose of Life becomes crystal clear. Being a Christ follower is about loving God and loving others. Everything else either aids or distracts from being a Christ follower. Thank you.

  • Odetta

    AMEN My Sister, I say AMEN!!!!

  • Bert Bagley

    Wow….what a voice you have Maria Dixon! Thank you for sharing. I’m from Galveston and your words certainly hit home to me. Blessings.

  • Eric Folkerth

    Thanks for this, Maria. I too am still reeling from Rod’s death, and remember he and Dina fondly from my time at HPUMC. While I did not know him well, everyone in that congregation was touched by that lovely family.

    We do indeed often tend to speak many words, with great confidence, on ministerial issues. But situations such as this one (The Steele’s) should cause us all to pause in prayer and humility.

    Thanks for the powerful reminder to focus on “the main thing.”