Have faith: The last shall be first

Island clergy weigh in on ministering to the poor on the Vineyard.

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The Rev. Howard-John Wesley, pastor of Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., preached at Union Chapel last Sunday. —Jeanna Shepard

When I first moved here six years ago, I was shocked to hear rumblings about homelessness on the Island. It just didn’t occur to me that a place that has such a wealthy façade would be home to those who struggle financially. I was mistaken. The Island Clergy Group, along with other Island organizations, works to shelter those who are homeless in the winter months with the Houses of Grace, a joint venture staffed by Island volunteers. Besides Houses of Grace, we have a food pantry, a farm gleaning program, and a clothing ministry, and a homeless initiative is in the works: Harbor Homes would provide housing and support for homeless individuals. Island clergy work long hours collaborating to address the working poor and the hungry and homeless on the Island.

I found a much better question to share with the Island clergy this month, thanks to the Rev. Roberta Williams, who suggested I address ministering to those who are marginalized on the Island. We got some great responses to this question:

In what way are you in ministry to the poor on Martha’s Vineyard? What resources are you in need of to continue or expand these ministries?

The Rev. Matt Splittgerber, pastor of Vineyard Assembly of God: Prior to accepting this position on the Vineyard, my family and I were part of America’s working poor. While I was between churches, I held a full-time job, but relied upon food stamps, food pantries, and subsidized housing for my family and me to survive. Through this journey I learned firsthand the sense of entrapment (not entitlement) that poverty brings. I learned that not only do those in poverty need realistic assistance, but they also need real encouragement from those who are willing to walk with them through their poverty, as the poor are often the invisible members of our community.

In addition to the church’s in-house benevolence support of a small number of elderly within the congregation, over the past year Vineyard Assembly of God has initiated active cooperation with existing Island ministries to the poor. We began an active supporting relationship with the Island Food Pantry by including a “Purple Box” for food donations at the church. We also encourage those of our members and adherents who feel inclined to volunteer for Island Grown Initiative’s summer lunch program — and the Island’s homeless shelters — to do so. More, however, needs to be done — especially in providing affordable housing for the Island’s working poor.

Bruce Nevin, representing the Island’s Quaker community, wrote to us. His group has a response from Karen Tewhey, Dukes County associate commissioner for the homeless, to share: St. Andrew’s Church and West Tisbury First Congregational Church are working collaboratively with the Dukes County manager and others to expand the programs available to homeless residents now living in poverty. Harbor Homes is a new initiative that will provide congregate housing and case-management support for homeless individuals. Experiencing homelessness is considered a serious trauma with long-lasting effects — emotionally, physically, and spiritually. It strips adults of their sense of dignity, and robs them of hope. At Harbor Homes, residents will be treated with dignity, respect, and love. Harbor Homes will provide homeless adults with safe, sanitary single rooms in a residential house so they can function productively in our community as parents, employees, and neighbors. They will contribute to the upkeep of the house, and acquire the skills needed to move toward self-sufficiency. We need ongoing financial and moral support as well as the continued volunteer efforts of parishioners to make Harbor Homes a permanent fixture on the Vineyard. In addition, we would especially appreciate help in identifying a property that we could rent year-round to pilot the first Harbor Home.

The Rev. Cathlin Baker, pastor of the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury: A handful of us have been working on a new homelessness initiative called Harbor Homes. A whole network of congregations collaborate during the community supper season. The West Tisbury Congregational Church extends our community supper program through April, because we find that the need still exists for food support, since most people do not return to work until May. Many congregations are also supporting the Community Lunch Program of Island Grown Initiative. Our church works closely with IGI on all their food-equity programs, including the gleaning program. We help with processing and storing gleaned vegetables, and ensuring they are used during the community supper season.

The clergy also have an Island Clergy Emergency Homeless Fund that supports the Houses of Grace program and offers grants for homelessness prevention. Currently, the West Tisbury church is administering those grants.

The Rev. Roberta Williams, pastor of the UMC of Martha’s Vineyard responded: The United Methodist Church of Martha’s Vineyard is a merger of the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown, Trinity UMC, next to the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs, and Christ United Methodist “Stone” Church in the Vineyard Haven Historic District. The Methodists sold the Old Whaling Church to Vineyard Preservation Trust for $1 so that it could be properly and exquisitely restored for generations. Trinity Church and Parish House was chosen as the home of the merged congregation.Despite no longer worshipping in the historic Christ “Stone” Church, our merged congregation has been able to maintain the church in order that these direct services to the needy are provided: The Island Food Pantry, established by Methodists in 1982, and Clothes-to-Go, free clothing, since 2002. Christ “Stone” Church seeks grants and donations for the urgent restoration of the historic clock tower, seen from the port. We have secured donations of $62,000. This is approximately one third of the cost.

We would like to make the air-conditioned sanctuary available at no cost for nonprofits for fundraising concerts. We seek the donation of a concert-quality piano and funds to restore the pipe organ made by the American Institute of Organ Building.

Clothes-to-Go needs new flooring, commercial-grade clothing racks, and the renovation of the adjacent bathroom and shower for persons in need. They gratefully receive clothing during open hours of Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, 2 to 4 pm, and Saturdays, 10 am to noon. The Island Food Pantry works collaboratively with other agencies, congregations, and nonprofits to secure the best food at the lowest prices. They provide food to individuals and agencies throughout the Island on Mondays and Wednesdays, 2 to 4 pm, and Saturdays, 10 am to noon.

Interfaith minister and spiritual counselor the Rev. Susan Waldrop wrote: I am not a pastor of a congregation, but I am involved in a personal effort to minister to those with health needs — poor and not poor — as an employee of the Cape Cod VNA. In addition, I serve, when I can, with the homeless initiative, Houses of Grace, organized by Father Chip Seadale. With regard to resources, all of these organizations need donations of every size!

These are days when there is a wider and wider gap between rich and poor, where money tends to spiral to the top 1 percent. We have the opportunity now to voluntarily set policies and practices which will restore the ladder of opportunity in education and allow for changes in attitude, work ethics, and pay-scale standards which empower and dignify employees. There are enough resources for all if we are not trying to just accumulate material gains by whatever means necessary.

I know some may consider that “pie in the sky,” but I think we are rapidly reaching a point where voluntary change and a restoration of a caring economy (not just individual donations) could be upstaged by widespread anger and/or political domination by a few.

So I work to help those I can, try to change social policies to grow resources in the other 99 percent.

Anyone wishing to donate to any of the above programs or initiatives, please email me at connie@mvtimes.com, and I can get you in touch with those you want to help.

Union Chapel on a summer Sunday

I went to Union Chapel last Sunday, and if you haven’t been to a Sunday service there, you should put it on your summer must-do list.

The Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley from Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., was the guest preacher. His church in Virginia has more than 7,000 members, and he’s the fifth generation of Baptist preachers in his family. He kept everybody on the edge of their seats last Sunday — sometimes out of their seats. There were paper fans waving in the chapel on that hot summer morning as a full house listened to his message. The music was incredible (Union Chapel is a sweet spot to listen to music), and his words were powerful. I’ll try to share some of his message here.

The first thing that struck me during the service, besides the incredible music, was a simple thing. There’s that time during the service in most faith traditions where we’re obliged to pray for others. At this service, we were invited to say the person’s name aloud. Then Wesley said something interesting afterward, that basically boils down to this: Don’t send someone’s name up in prayer when you’re not willing to even pick up the phone and call that person. Wow. My takeaway from that message was that it’s easy to ask God to help that person who we know is struggling, but we’re less willing to do so ourselves.

Then Wesley got down to business. The main scripture reading he talked about was 2 Corinthians, chapter 12, verses 7 to 10 — the one where Paul pleads to God three times to persuade Him to remove the “thorn in his flesh.” Instead of relieving Paul’s discomfort, God tells him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Probably not the way Paul wanted his prayers answered.

Wesley said we all have that experience where we pray for something specific over and over again and our prayers aren’t answered. We all have thorns we want removed.

“Heal this, change this, fix this, turn this around,” are the prayers we send up to God, the pastor said. Right after we pray, we expect something to happen. Then we pray again, and nothing happens, he said. Then again and again. We get a prayer partner and hold hands and pray. Still nothing. We all see people who seem to have all of God’s blessings — abundant wealth, happiness — and we still have that thorn.

Wesley said, “Here you are going to church on your vacation, praying harder than anybody can pray …” and still your prayers aren’t answered.

We’re not told in scripture exactly what Paul’s thorn is, but “if anybody knew how to pray, it was Paul,” Wesley said. And God didn’t remove that thorn. Instead, Pastor Wesley said, God told Paul to “live with it.”

We’re taught that prayers are answered. If we pray, we ought to get what we want. That’s not the way it works, Wesley said. We live with that thorn because there are some things that we cannot change, and that thorn helps us learn to accept the will of God, Wesley said. Then he put it in perspective.

“If Jesus can go to the garden at Gethsemane and ask for delivery and God tells Jesus no — then you’re gonna get some nos,” Wesley told the crowd. That thorn that you live with makes you stronger, he said.

It was tremendous to hear preaching that was practical and thoughtful and gave me more than one aha! moment. Thank you, Reverend Wesley, for bringing the gift of your preaching to our Island.

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St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown brings talented soprano Laquita Mitchell to the church for a special offering of familiar opera and spiritual melodies on Saturday, August 4, at 7  pm. A wine, cheese, and dessert reception follows. Advance tickets are $45; they are $50 at the door. Call the church office at 508-627-5330 to find out more.

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The Federated Church announces the 11th annual Edgartown House Tour and Tea on Tuesday, August 7, from 1:30 to 4:30 pm. Tickets are available in advance at Ticketsmv.com/tour, or may be purchased the day of the event for $40 each, beginning at 1 pm at the Federated Church Meetinghouse on 45 South Summer St., in Edgartown, and at the Carnegie, on 58 North Water St., also in Edgartown. At 1:30 pm at the meetinghouse, historian Mary Jane Carpenter will give a presentation about the historical importance of the homes on the tour. Leaving the church, the tour includes three classic New England homes (North Water Street, Morse Street, and Cottage Street) and a private viewing of the Carnegie, followed by tea in a backyard waterfront garden overlooking Edgartown Harbor and Chappaquiddick. The event benefits the preservation of the historic 1828 Federated Church Meetinghouse. The tour takes place rain or shine. Parking is available at the Edgartown School parking lot. For more information, call 508-627-4421, or email officefederatedchurchmv@gmail.com.

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The Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association welcomes the Rev. Michael Price this coming Sunday, August 5, and the Reverend Marvin A. Moss the following Sunday. Worship services are held at 9:30 am in the Tabernacle; the services are interdenominational, and all are welcome to attend. Coffee and conversation takes place after each service.

Bible study with the guest ministers is typically scheduled the following Monday and Tuesday. The Rev. Michael Price leads a Bible study under the tent from 10 am to noon on Monday, August 6. The topic is “A Tale of Two Cities: Cities of Refuge, Sanctuary Cities, and the Differences Therein.”

Pick up homemade jams, pottery, jewelry and more at the MVCMA craft fair this weekend, Saturday, August 5, from 9 am to 3 pm. The MVCMA has something going on every day of the week, usually multiple events. Check the website, mvcma.org, and you’ll find something for everybody.

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Gospel Fest returns to Union Chapel on August 3 and 4, 7 to 9:30 both nights. If you want to hear inspirational music performed by excellent singers and entertainers, it’s another must-do. On Friday, piano/organ virtuoso Quennel Gaskin and renowned saxophonist Michael Gayle perform jazz, classical and contemporary Christian music. Saturday’s performers include Gospel in the Vineyard founder Arene Lomax, who has been a force in the gospel music industry years. Joining Lomax is vocalist and songwriter James Dale, Divine Connection Music Ministry, and the Island’s own Spiritual Choir lead by Jim Thomas. For more information, contact Arene Lomax at gospelinthev@gmail.com or call 917-554-9088.