community, spiritual life

God’s still calling

Editor’s note: As part of a continuing series on how Wheeling residents express their spirituality, today’s post features a young couple who are going against the cultural flow. Matt and Amanda Cummins are trading potential big-pay job training for the big-blessing world of ministry.

Sometimes God comes at you fast. In one season of life, Matt Cummins was a relatively happy atheist, pursuing a master’s degree in chemical engineering and operating under the assumption that, “all religion kind of seemed absurd.”

Rocket forward a decade — past an encounter with Old Testament prophecy that engaged and changed his mind, past a conversion whose date is marked in his Bible, past life problems that included an abrupt career loss and the near death of his young wife. And, there you have him. A 30-something who is entering the ministry — potentially as a missionary — and making a commitment to lower-pay service that is growing rare among even those Americans who cut their teeth on church pews.

“It may look crazy on the outside, but this is the same God of Joseph,” Cummins said, referring to an ancient Israelite who was blessed and became a blessing in spite of experiencing both slavery and imprisonment.

A New Path

Cummins identifies with Joseph, having experienced similar kinds of ups and downs. Prior to his conversion to Christianity in 2008, he had drifted from a loose childhood church affiliation to agnosticism to atheism. Then, everything changed.

“In college, people began to witness to me in ways that appealed to my intellectual interests … I kept looking for empirical evidence (of God’s existence) that I could evaluate. It was the Old Testament prophecies that compelled me into Christianity,” he said.

Isaiah, written more than 600 years before the birth of Jesus, was especially arresting in its detailed description of a Messiah that had yet to come, he said. “That really impressed upon me the truth, the authority of the (scripture).”

Ironically, it was a Bible study on the second coming of Christ that is still anticipated by Christians that sealed the deal. Cummins went home from the study, concerned he might miss out on what God was doing. He prayed for salvation and a literal new life was launched.

Like Joseph, Cummins soon experienced a shocking loss. Citing a “lack of passion,” his boss let him go from an engineering job. Encouraged by friends and having good memories of coaching gymnastics while a teen, he began teaching at a private Christian school. But, this new work was at one-third his former salary.

“I worried what (my wife) Amanda’s parents would think,” he said, noting another initial reaction to the change, shame.

Looking back on that moment, however, the Louisville, Ky., native, sees God at work. “I know that this was God’s purpose for me,” he said of the job loss. “I would have continued running uphill … Being let go was an opportunity to explore another territory.”

That opportunity included time. Time to teach children. Time to learn more about the Bible. And, time to begin teaching Bible studies himself at the couple’s spiritual home, First Baptist Church of Wheeling.

“Growing deeper in the word, I really began to love the church,” Cummins said. The couple began going on mission trips — to India, Nepal, Nigeria and Honduras — using Amanda’s physician’s assistant training as a springboard. “There came a point when I was ready to devote myself full time.”

Ironically, the beginning of Cummins’ off-site ministerial studies through Southern Baptist Theological Seminary coincided with the birth of the couple’s first child, Jane. Childbirth complications left Amanda fighting for her life for several weeks.

Still, the couple, now married nine years, persevered. She is back on her job as a PA at Wheeling Health Right, a non-profit clinic in the downtown. Matt cares for Jane and works on his master’s of divinity, often spreading his schoolwork and a laptop computer over a corner table at nearby Tim Horton’s. He has about two years of studies to go.

Amanda Cummins, who has felt a similar calling to move beyond “do goodery” to a more ministerial approach to her own career calling, agrees their unconventional life is where God has led.

“That (pursuing higher pay) wasn’t even on the radar for me,” Amanda Cummins said. “I picked this profession because it seemed like a tangible way to serve God … I want to be able to provide people with a hope of something better.”

Cummins laughed at this point in the interview, acknowledging Amanda’s lack of monetary pursuit was part of her initial allure. “When I saw that Amanda was a PA and that she was choosing to work with the underprivileged and was willing to take a hit in income — that was an indication of authenticity.”

This kind of passion may serve the couple well, as their long-term goal may not be traditional American pastoral work, but missions.

A New Trend?

Interestingly, the Cummins aren’t the only First Baptist members training for ministry. Another young man and a young woman are also attending the same Kentucky-based seminary on site, according to Pastor Darrin Wright. Across the three, their intended paths range from mission work to pastoring to Christian counseling.

Wright suspects the church’s commitment to verse-by-verse Bible study and an emphasis on lay members, as well as ministry, going on mission trips has something to do with the trend. He estimates 50 or more local church members have done such trips in the last eight years or so. Another factor is likely about listening with spiritual ears, Wright added. “Over the years, we have preached messages challenging people to consider whether or not God is calling them into ministry.”

He can look forward to a day when the training is done and youth he has worked with are out there, somewhere, serving. “It is a humbling privilege to see God work in people’s lives this way,” Wright said of the Cummins and the others. “It never gets old seeing how God … changes and uses people for His purposes and for His glory.”

These young ministers in training are part of a national trend, as well. According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, seminary enrollments are up across America. Hartford noted, however, that a perceived shortage of pastors continues. With the majority of American churchgoers now attending mega-churches of 350 or more members, churches with fewer than 100 members are having difficulty finding pastors.

The Hartford Institute said there is not so much of a “shortage as a lack of balance.” With few pastoral jobs at the top and a disappearing opportunity for traditional career advancement through mid-sized congregations, some ordained ministers are leaving the field rather than sign on for a lifetime with the smaller churches that make up the majority of American houses of worship.

 

 


community

Small towns, here and there

 

WHEELING, W.Va. — The odds are good you’ll see someone you know on screen if you attend the Friday premiere of a feature documentary focused on Moundsville. Marc Harshman, state poet laureate, is among those interviewed. So is Eugene Saunders, that city’s former mayor.

Interestingly, those who watch the film at its Pittsburgh launch next month are also likely to see someone familiar — even if they can’t put quite the same name to him. That’s the point.

John W. Miller, a former foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, hopes Moundsville will strike a chord with those who knew Fostoria glass and Marx toys. And, with those who knew the heydays of Donora, Pa., or Gary, Ind., or the Pittsburgh steel mills. Or, even the Belgian rustbelt south of his own hometown of Brussels.

Miller, now a Pittsburgh resident with dual American/Belgian citizenship, was in Marshall County this week, talking with Weelunk and passing out flyers advertising the premiere.

Zipping through town in the process, he pointed to Tecnocap, the last industrial manufacturer left in an area that once made everything from airplanes to the iconic Big Wheel toy. “They make pickle jar lids,” he said, jetting on to Quality Bakery Shoppe, touted by Saunders in the film as the source of the “best donut in the world.”

A chocolate donut now in one hand, Miller is in search of coffee. The high-octane interview eventually makes its way to Wheeling’s Later Alligator, where Miller has a French press and explains more about how Moundsville came to be.

“This town’s just perfect, the picture of America,” said Miller, who created the film with David Bernabo, a Pittsburgh filmmaker and artist. “It really was the greatest microcosm.”

It was, in fact, exactly what a journalist burnt out from global travel and the divisiveness of modern politics was seeking. Miller quit the Journal in December 2016 and repackaged himself as an indie writer who now hopes to tell the kind of stories that will help America heal. His freelance work ranges from a business column on global trading to opinion pieces for Buzzfeed.com to the story of private reparations made to the descendants of slaves for America Magazine, a Jesuit publication.

And, there’s the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council-funded film, which, oddly enough, started with finding a paranormal shrine at a hotdog stand on the way home from covering a coal story for the Journal.

He pulled off the road that 2013 day, talked to the stand’s owner and was hooked. “I am obsessed with Moundsville,” he said with a laugh, noting he has traveled to the city so many times in the last year, his girlfriend now refers to his trips as “visiting the folks.”

A Universal Tale

That’s not so far from the truth, even though Miller’s own folks chose Europe over American cities of any size. Former Maryland residents who found a music career in Brussels in the 1970s, his parents sent Miller to French-speaking Belgian schools instead of those dedicated to the children of other American ex-pats.

He has dual citizenship and a keen eye for universal similarities as a result.

“I grew up with faded prosperity around me,” he said of seeing a Belgian rustbelt in the south of that nation. It is facing the same kind of re-invention as American manufacturing cities such as Moundsville. “I am kind of fascinated with people and how they handle that.”

In Moundsville, Miller and Bernabo found a broad cast of characters doing that very thing. There’s Saunders, the city’s first-and-only African-American mayor. He’s lived in Moundsville through the industrial boom and its 1980s implosion. There’s Alexis Martinez, a 24-year-old son of Mexican immigrants who dreams of medical school. There’s poet Harshman and a host of other elder townsmen who have obviously thought through Moundsville’s place and time at great length and depth.

And, there’s the mound that gave the city its name. Built from an estimated 3 million basket loads of soil by the Adena people, the 2,200-year-old mound’s very presence is as central to the film as it is to the city. A tourist attraction in Moundsville’s evolving economy, it is also a looming testament to the fact that times can change to the point of obliteration.

What happened to the Adena, happened to Fostoria and its industrial kin. They are gone. And, that touches Miller, who has seen communities all over the world struggling with the same loss of an era.

What happened to the Adena, happened to Fostoria and its industrial kin. They are gone. And, that touches Miller, who has seen communities all over the world struggling with the same loss of an era.

“These places really were the most prosperous places in the world. They made airplanes in Moundsville … Their toy factory was the most important one in the world,” Miller said of what disappeared locally.

That in mind, he is disappointed that much of the news narrative of such losses has focused on fallout — particularly the political (the sea change illustrated by U.S. President Donald Trump and the rise of like-minded leaders around the globe) or the epidemiological (read rampant opioid overdoses). Miller believes journalists are often missing a different story, the human-scaled one.

“I think people on the coasts, they miss how much people are grieving that loss of cultural vibrancy.”

Grief, or at least sadness, can certainly be felt in Moundsville. The loss of job opportunity. The loss of family continuity and sense of place. The loss of pride in products made well.

“It’s a story of the West right now,” Miller said. “The world’s changing. It’s roiling. To me, it feels like telling one of the biggest stories in the world.”

Not Stopping at Sad

Moundsville isn’t just a sad story, however. Miller said the reason he wanted to tell a universal tale through a specific small town was about healing and the future.

The film, indeed, presents the city in pleasant light. Tight camera shots emphasize the tidiness of neighborhoods. Soft-focus effects make even Walmart look kind of dreamy. Speakers come off as reflective and endearingly quirky.

Story arcs cover the city’s move toward tourism, particularly concerning the mound’s rich Native American history, New Vrindaban and paranormal tours at and associated with the shuttered West Virginia State Penitentiary. Miller also sees hope in the shared history of those who remain — the city’s population has halved to about 8,000 since its peak.

Party-centric news may be playing at McDonald’s, he said, but the real future of Moundsville isn’t as much about what’s happening in Washington, D.C., as it is about that shared history and community. Reality is, he believes, the new football field at John Marshall High School, the new jail or the ethane cracker plant many city officials hope will eventually materialize just across the Ohio River.

Not to mention what’s not there yet. Will New York chefs eventually make their way into rural West Virginia, opening up shop in derelict buildings as they have in Pittsburgh? Will the “best donuts in the world” find a larger venue? Will young residents find wildly creative ways to make a living in a new economy — as some of the film subjects are already attempting? Or, will, as one Buzzfeed reader snarkily suggested in response to Miller’s opinion piece about the film, they just wise up and move to where the jobs are?

Miller doesn’t know. But, he can hope.

West Virginia, oh my home …” the aspiring banjo player literally sings over his coffee at one point. The lines are from a Hazel Dickens song he learned at Clifftop, a string band festival near the New River Gorge that he describes as Burning Man for folk musicians.

In the dead of the night, in the still and the quiet, I slip away, like a bird in flight,” the song goes on, although his coffee is long gone and the interview is winding to a close. “Back to those hills, the place that I call home.”

“Moundsville” premieres 7 p.m. Friday in the Strand, the city’s restored 98-year-old theater. Admission is $5 per person at the door or online. Beginning Dec. 15, the film can also be rented or purchased online. It will additionally be shown in Pittsburgh Jan. 17 at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Watch the trailer here.

community, spiritual life

Is there a faith/church balance?

Readers interested in balancing individual faith and church accountability may enjoy this shortened version of a news feature I did for weelunk.com. It focuses on one young man’s regional fight to bring a global pattern of sexual abuse within one church into the light and toward an end.

Just going to the grocery store can be a challenge when your calling, your spiritual work is the pursuit of truth and justice — particularly truth about sexualweelunk spirituality catholic dissenters.JPG misconduct inside the ministry.

A breeze by the frozen green beans can yield a surprising thumbs up from a highly placed priest. Or, in another aisle, Michael Iafrate could just as likely hear the question, “Why are you attacking the church?” If not that, it could be something like, “How can you defend a church that condones criminal behavior?”

The Wheeling Jesuit grad, co-coordinator of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, reflected on this contrast of perspectives from his unassuming office in downtown Wheeling.

“I can’t be a Catholic and not fight for a better church,” he concluded in a gentle voice that matches his John Denver-meets-Mr. Rogers vibe. “I can’t be a Catholic with my back to the people who Catholicism hurts.”

Right now, that means he, co-coordinator Jeannie Kirkhope, the committee and committee friends have a heavy focus on the sexual-misconduct revelations that are unfolding at a weekly, if not daily, pace in the news. The nearly 50-year-old, small-grant-funded group advocates for a broad variety of social-justice issues in a 20-diocese region that includes parts of Pennsylvania. A cloud of dirt from grand jury reports in that state concerning widespread priestly sexual abuse had barely settled when the scandal turned local. Really local.

The recent resignation of Bishop Michael Bransfield as head of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston under accusations of sexual misconduct toward adults and lavish living at parishioners’ expense cannot help but take center stage for the moment, Iafrate said of committee responses that have included publishing letters demanding accountability.

Since Bransfield’s resignation, more local connections to the scandal and more committee responses have followed. The nearby Steubenville, Ohio, diocese recently released a list of “credible” accusations against priests. Information about a specific Steubenville priest who impregnated an underage altar girl was also announced.

Iafrate, who had already discovered regional interconnectedness meant he knew three of the priests on the Pennsylvania lists, was on high alert. He pondered the word “credible.” He looked carefully at the story surrounding the specific priest, who was soon reported by several sources to have been volunteering with youth activities within West Virginia. He also noticed the general list had limitations he found troubling.

He specifically challenges a list detail that he suspects few outside the Catholic Church would understand. For example, in Steubenville, he said the only released names were those of “diocesan priests” attached to a specific parish. Other Steubenville-area priests — such as Franciscans, Dominicans or Jesuits serving in various capacities — were not included, he said.

That distinction had him on the phone with the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, which has promised to release a similar list of accusations made in West Virginia over the last 50 years. Will all priests be included, he asked on behalf of the committee. The local diocese, under interim leadership by a bishop from outside the state, assured him they will. Does that include priests who cross diocese borders to volunteer, such as the one associated with the teen pregnancy? Again, Iafrate was pleased with the response.

The local diocese, he said, has, in fact, already gone on to issue an announcement about that priest’s in-state activities in both internal parochial school communications and to the general church membership in recent days.

Pleased? Yes. But, Iafrate said the committee is not yet satisfied. “I would like to see the diocese be more transparent about what they know, how they handled abuse, how they failed to handle the abuse.”

“I would like to see the diocese be more transparent about what they know, how they handled abuse, how they failed to handle the abuse.” — Michael Iafrate

He would also like to see external civil investigations in addition to the internal ones promised by the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. The committee may approach state Attorney General Patrick Morrissey to request he follow up on a recent mention of interest in an investigation.

This blend of internal and external advocacy is also expressed at ccappal.org, a website the committee manages. There, diocese news releases are available alongside secular reporting from story leaders like the Boston Globe and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Indeed, Iafrate said he depends on such secular news, which some church officials have called “media attacks,” to give the issue broader context. He pointed to a specific joint Globe/Inquirer report printed in early November. It gave extensive details about the allegations against Bransfield that he has not seen reported elsewhere.

Iafrate — wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Be the church you want to see in this world,” and chipping away at the dissertation stage of a doctorate in theology — pauses for a deep breath at this point in the interview. Keeping that kind of advocacy in balance with his own Catholicism is what it is. He notes his “very Catholic” family includes a priest and a deacon and that he recently had his infant daughter baptized into the faith.

“I don’t think the truth is an attack. Jesus said the truth will set us free,” he said. “I love the church as the people of God. The Catholic faith is beautiful. It orients my life. I think it changes the world when it’s operating the right way. … But, when the church is hypocritical (it) actually hurts people through the way it behaves.”

community, spiritual life

Standing with Tree of Life

“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” Psalm 133:1

Our city is close enough to Pittsburgh that few people here are more than two degrees of separation away from the Squirrel Hill neighborhood that experienced a mass killing at a synagogue this weekend. One neighbor’s sister lives near to where 11 peoplCIMG5747_edited-1.JPGe died on Saturday. A dear friend has lived and worked in the neighborhood. Another friend still works there.

So, perhaps it was no surprise that when our own city’s synagogue opened its doors to the community on Sunday, people showed up in force to grieve, to hope and to stand for “common decency.” A crowd of several hundred filled the sanctuary and spilled out into a fellowship area, the lobby, a small stage and into the lawn outside at least two doors that were thickly flanked by police.

“We are not alone,” said local Rabbi Joshua Lief. And, that was evident.

Here, this weekend, people came together in community even if they lack unity in many aspects of their lives. That is why Jews and Christians, Hare Krishnas and the occasional athiest could stand side by side. That is why people of every skin and hair color — even purple — could cry together. That is why tiny babies and old men with canes and kippahs could fellowship. Even Democrats and Republicans laid down their ideological arms on this occasion.

It wasn’t perfect. Theological and cultural divisions still abound. But, it reminded me of the sense of community and common decency that has held America together for so long. If we agree on nothing else, surely we can unite in doing better than pipe bombs and shootings, than rantings and postings filled with hate.

We can and we must if we are to survive as a nation. May God help us all!

 

community, spiritual life

Looking for a city?

“Earth’s crammed with heaven…
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.” Elizabeth Barrett Browning, English poet
What do U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and the 7,000 or so Central American dreamers who are walking resolutely to America’s border have in common? The answer isn’t a punchline. It’s a universal human condition.

They are all looking for a people, a place, a homeland that is somehow better. They suspect it exists. They hope it exists. And, they are not alone.

We are all looking for a place of fairness and rightness and goodness. This is true whether we are a refugee, a “white” suburbanite sending off our DNA in search of ancestral identity, a political canvasser hoping desperately for a governmental fix, or a young person fantasizing about superpowers that can set things “right.”

In the Bible’s Hebrews 11, the Apostle Paul described this human condition as looking for a “city” or “country.” Paul wrote of ancient Israelite Abraham, who left the security of one home in search of a better place. He, indeed, made it to the Promised Land. But, even that wasn’t the hoped-for city, the place whose “builder and maker is God.” Instead, Abraham and today’s humans, particularly those believers who are operating by a higher law than that of any nation, remained “strangers and pilgrims on the earth.”

So, where do we look? Where do we go? Paul answered this question, as well. That better city, that better country is deliciously real. It is heaven — a place where God is “not ashamed” to be called our God and has prepared a place for us.

Isn’t it good to know that there is a place of rightness? A place where we are welcome — black or white or brown, rich or poor, male or female, young or old? A place for us?

In this world, our search may cause us to be mercilessly mocked. We might be turned away at some kind of political border or even die on our way there. But, nothing except our own rejection of God’s mercy can keep us out of this perfect city.

Let us search. Let us look. Let us enter in.