Sunday, February 18, 2018

IF NOT NOW, WHEN? Thoughts On the Issue Of Gun Violence


Again.

This is becoming exceedingly frustrating.

It used to be shocking.  A lone gunman walks into a crowd of people and randomly shoots and kills numerous individuals for no apparent reason.  We found it to be unbelievable.  Numbing.

Sadly, it is becoming almost routine.

How did we get to this point?  That is a loaded question.  In many ways it is far too complicated to answer in a few paragraphs.  Besides, it is highly subjective in that most people who seek to explain this phenomenon do so with clear bias, whether to the right or the left.

Opinions aside, there are a few facts that cannot be disputed.

·         The United States of America has more mass shootings than any other country.

·         The venues are varied and unpredictable, including schools, concerts, night clubs, political rallies, movie theaters and city streets.

·         Big cities, small towns and country settings are all vulnerable.

·         Each shooting is followed by emotional debates and legislative deadlock.  In other words, nothing changes.

·         American factories manufactured over 100,000,000 firearms in the past 25 years.  Almost half of these (50 million) are in civilian hands.

·         40% of the guns made in America come from three companies:  Sturm, Ruger & Co; Remington; and Smith & Wesson.

·         The United States has 4.4% of the world’s population but 44% of the civilian-owned guns.

·         There are more gun shops in the United States than there are Starbucks coffee shops in the entire world.

·         15,000,000 semi-automatic military-style AR-15 rifles are in civilian hands in this country.

The statistics are absolutely staggering.  The Los Angeles Times published a disturbing timeline of the 50 most deadly mass shootings from 1984 through 2017.  The article can be found at http://timelines.latimes.com/deadliest-shooting-rampages/.  This list includes a total of 50 events resulting in 524 deaths and an injury list of over 987.  That is thirty-four years with an average of over 15 deaths and 29 injuries per year!  Sadly, however, these shootings are becoming more frequent and more serious in recent years.  According to the LA Times article there were 3 mass shootings/40 deaths in the 6 years from 1984 – 1989.  Compare that to 6 shootings/77 deaths in 2016 & 2017 alone.

Imagine for a moment that these deaths and injuries were not the result of mass shootings but rather airline accidents.  Without a doubt there would be an uproar and extensive studies performed with both Federal regulations strengthened and airline safety inspections enhanced to prevent future accidents.  Perhaps that is why in 2016 and 2017 there was only one commercial airline crash in the United States resulting in 20 injuries but no deaths.

Consider Amtrak’s response to their recent accidents.  In the past three years Amtrak experienced six accidents resulting in 10 deaths.  The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) made numerous recommendations which Amtrak accepted and enacted, including the process of installing Positive Train Control to monitor traveling conditions and override manual control when necessary.

None of these examples will result in perfection.  There will still be accidents and tragedies.  But the significant thing to remember is that each fatality results in careful follow up studies and determined efforts to protect lives at all costs.  That is, with one glaring exception.  Gun violence.

Gun violence does not involve accidents.  No rocks unexpectedly found on the tracks causing derailments.  No fog resulting in low visibility, or icy conditions leading to uncontrolled landings.  No mechanical errors or mental lapses.  Instead, deaths from gun violence are intentional and well planned by the perpetrator.  Yet we do nothing to prevent them.

And remember, I have only been talking about mass shootings thus far.  Suicide alone accounts for 60% of the deaths from gunshot wounds.  This country averages over 33,000 gun deaths per year, according to the Center for Disease Control.  33,000!  That includes suicides, homicides, mass shootings and accidents.  That is roughly the same number of deaths that result from automobile accidents, yet the auto industry has extensive regulations and laws controlling it even though nearly all those deaths are the result of extenuating circumstances (such as weather or driver distraction) rather than a deliberate, planned attack.

There is a war going on in this country.  I do not say that lightly.  Consider the fact that more Americans have died from gun violence in the past two years (over 66,000 lives) than during the entire Vietnam War (58,318), a period of 20 years (1955-1975).  Just last year alone more Americans died from guns in this country than those killed and injured in the entire war in Afghanistan.  That sure sounds like a war to me.

I thought we lived in a representative democracy where we, the people, elect members to Congress and a President who are to serve the public good and protect us.  That does not appear to be the case when it comes to gun violence.  Congress remains terrifyingly silent.  They refuse to do anything to address the issue.  Instead, they defer to the Grand Puppet Master known as the National Rifle Association.

Yes, I am convinced that the NRA is singularly responsible for the lack of inaction on the part of Congress.  This makes absolutely no sense, but it is true.  Through its vast financial resources the NRA, along with their dear friends in the gun lobby, has bought their way into the halls of the U. S. Capitol, owning enough Senators and Congressmen to effectively block any legislation that even hints of limiting gun sales.

How can this be?  According to PolitiFact 90% of Americans support universal background checks on all gun sales.  This is not even close!  90%!  Even among members of the NRA 72% support universal background checks.  That’s almost 3 out of 4 NRA members.  Yet the NRA officially opposes this and has successfully controlled enough members of Congress to block any effort to do so.  This is not how a democracy works.

The NRA would have you believe that background checks have no effect on gun violence.  Do not believe their lies!  Currently nineteen states already have criminal background checks for all gun sales.  In these states the difference is stunning since this law was enacted.  For example:

·         47% fewer women are shot by their partner

·         47% fewer suicides by firearms

·         48% less gun trafficking

·         53% fewer law enforcement officers have been shot

During the 2016 campaign then-candidate Donald Trump boldly claimed, “I am the Law and Order candidate!”  Yet as President his policies prove just the opposite.  Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress remain paralyzed by the NRA and refuse to pass reasonable measures to protect our citizens and our law enforcement officers.

Trump vainly tries to deflect the discussion away from gun control by blaming mass shootings on mental illness.  If he really believes this why on earth is he making it easier for people with mental illness to obtain guns?  On February 28, 2017, about a month after his inauguration, Trump signed HJ Resolution 40, a bill that made it easier for people with mental illness to obtain guns.  Interestingly, the White House loves to produce pictures of the President signing bills, resolutions, and Executive Orders.  Trump is particularly fond of such attention.  However, in this case, the White House has repeatedly refused to release the photo in spite of countless requests to do so.

During the Obama administration measures were taken to prevent 75,000 persons with mental illness from obtaining guns.  In a secret moment without the press in the room Trump undid that with his signature.  In addition, Trump’s budget drastically reduced funding for mental health.  Thus if this administration truly believes that mass shootings are the result of mental illness then they are intentionally endangering the lives of American citizens by encouraging this health concern and enabling such persons to purchase guns.

How are we to respond to this madness?  I refuse to simply sit back and remain silent.  I do not accept that there is nothing we can do.  Instead, I see two possible steps that could be taken, though in all honesty they probably won’t.

First, the members of the NRA must reclaim their organization.  Since almost 3 out of 4 members support gun control efforts let them force their own leadership to fall in line and represent their views.  If the NRA fails to respond, then let the 72% break ties with the NRA and form a new, alternate organization.  Call it the American Rifle Association, or the Responsible Gun Owners, or whatever name they choose.  Let them take control of their future.  If the NRA lost 72% of their members they would also lose significant funding and influence resulting in a loss of control over Congress.

This may not be so far fetched.  Even as I am writing this I noticed that Al Hoffman, Jr., a prominent GOP fund raiser, just announced that he will not support any candidate who does not favor universal background checks and an assault weapons ban.   It is said that money speaks.  People of conscience are beginning to roar!

Second, if PolitiFact is correct, let the 90% of Americans who support gun control organize and actively demonstrate to demand change.  We have historic precedent for this.  In the 1950’s and 1960’s the Civil Rights movement took to the streets in support of equal rights.  Under the inspired leadership of persons like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson and many others an entire culture was changed, forcing the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Likewise, during the Vietnam war it was the masses who opposed the war and demonstrated against it.  College students, churches, and concerned citizens refused to be silent and joined together to force the issue.  Only then did our elected officials listen to them and began the process of ending the war. 

Of course, the Civil Rights movement had support from Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.  The Vietnam War opposition had support from Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern and eventually, Richard Nixon.  Sadly, we have no such leadership in the current White House.  Rather, we have a gun lobby lackey who hasn’t a clue how to represent the people or bring a sense of unity and purpose to the public discourse.  There are encouraging voices in Congress, however, even if they are not currently in leadership roles.  Still, the key is public determination.  We need to organize the masses and demand change.  But we need to do this with a commitment to nonviolence and the legal process.

In fact, this is already beginning.  The Associated Press reports:

Organizers behind the Women's March, an anti-Trump and female empowerment protest, called for a 17-minute walkout on March 14 to "protest Congress' inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods."

The Network for Public Education, an advocacy organization for public schools, meanwhile, announced a "national day of action" on April 20, the anniversary of the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, in which two students opened fire on their classmates, killing 12 students and one teacher.

The organization is encouraging teachers and students to organize sit-ins, walkouts, marches and any other events to protest gun violence in schools.

Sudhin S. Thanawala, Associated Press

2/17/2018



A group of high school teenagers and adults did just this, holding a protest demonstration against guns on Saturday, February 17, 2018 at the Broward County Federal Courthouse in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.  We need more events like this, and not just in the week following the most recent massacre but relentlessly until legislators respond with meaningful measures.

After each mass shooting the Republican dinosaurs regurgitate the same old lines to claim that “now is not the time to talk about gun control”.  In saying that they imply that there is a time that is appropriate for this conversation.  So please, tell me:  When exactly is the time to talk about this?  If not now, WHEN?
By G. D. Gehr
February 17, 2018

Friday, September 8, 2017

Action Alert Regarding DACA


As a Pastor in the Church of the Brethren and a citizen of the United States I am supportive of the DACA program and deeply concerned for the plight of immigrants in this country.  I endorse the position of the Church of the Brethren and am passing along this Action Alert from our denomination.  Whether you are a member of the Church of the Brethren or not I invite you to contact your congressional representatives and let your voice be heard.  Blessings!
- gdg



ACTION ALERT
"The biblical tradition regarding the alien guides our response as Church of the Brethren people when we deal with the immigrants in our land...We live with the hope that we will someday have a community of justice, peace and love. This hope gives us the courage to be faithful to the One who calls us to live out that hope through love for our neighbors and our enemies. We pray for God's help as we seek to do justice, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with God among peoples of all nations."
—1982 Church of the Brethren Annual Conference Statement: "Addressing the Concern of Undocumented Persons and Refugees in the United States"
After this week's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals announcement, many of us are asking how we can support DACA recipients and fight for fair legislation. The end of DACA impacts our friends and family; read one Church of the Brethren DACA story here. We are sad and angry that DACA recipients have to face this uncertainty and fear. The President's decision allows for a six-month window in which Congress can pass the Dream Act of 2017, which would create a legal path to citizenship for those who qualified for the DACA program. We must use this opportunity to tell Congress how important the Dreamers are to the Church of the Brethren!
The first thing you can do is call your Representative and Senators, and tell them that you would like a clean passage of the Dream Act of 2017. Call 866-961-4293. Please call 3 times, so that you can be connected with your Representative and both of your Senators.
Sample Script: "I'm your constituent from [City, State]. I support the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and strongly oppose President Trump's announcement to end it. DACA has provided nearly 800,000 immigrant youth the opportunity to work, raise a family, and pursue their dreams. I urge you to support a clean passage of the Dream Act of 2017 (S.1615/H.R.3440) and do everything in your power to protect immigrant youth."
If you will be in Washington, D.C, we can also set up meetings with your legislators so that you can tell them why you believe in the clean passage of the Dream Act. E-mail us at vbateman@brethren.org if you would like to get a meeting on the Hill.
It is also important that you be vocal about your support for the Dream Act of 2017 on social media, using the hashtag #DreamAct, and including your Senators' and Representative's handles. Today, many legislators are expected to share DACA stories on the House/Senate floors--you can also tweet your support for their advocacy!
In addition to these calls, meetings, and vocal support of the Dream Act, you can host vigils, organize letter writing parties, and coordinate advocacy trips for your communities. Please continue to pray for and with DACA recipients across the country as they face this time of uncertainty.
In Christ's peace,
Victoria Bateman
Peacebuilding and Policy Associate
Church of the Brethren, Office of Public Witness
Washington, D.C.
For more information about the public witness ministries of the Church of the Brethren, contact Nathan Hosler, Director, Office of Public Witness:
Nathan Hosler
337 North Carolina Ave SE
Washington, DC 20003
nhosler@brethren.org
717-333-1649

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

An Open Letter To Pres. Donald Trump

[Note:  I originally posted the following letter on Facebook but felt compelled to copy it here as well in hopes it may reach a wider audience.]

I cannot remain silent about this.  Yesterday the President of the United States of America, Donald Trump, gave sanction to Neo-Nazis, white Supremacists, and the KKK.  He has in effect endorsed these groups and thumped his nose to the Constitution of this country by endorsing hate groups that seek to eliminate the rights of Jews and people of color.  Mr. President, for your information this country fought its bloodiest war to ensure the rights of people of color and to preserve the nation against traitors and revolutionists who flew the same flag that is hailed by the hate groups today.  We also fought a war to defend against Nazism, Fascism, and the hatred and prejudices espoused by such ideology.  My father was one of those who fought the Nazis.  You, Mr. President, have insulted my father and all our veterans who fought in the Civil War and the Second World War by now endorsing and giving credence to the very forces they fought against.  Shame on you, Mr. President!  You have violated your oath of office and the institution of the Presidency.  August 15, 2017 will forever be a day of tragedy and sorry for the United States of America because of the words you spoke on that day.

George Douglas Gehr
August 16, 2017

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Why I Believe In The Denominational Church



By G. D. Gehr  10/05/2016
               There is a growing distrust of authority these days.  It is most evident in the political realm, where an outsider like Donald Trump is able to mount a most formidable challenge to a career insider like Hillary Clinton.  Part of Trump’s appeal is his repeated claims that the establishment cannot be trusted and that he offers the only true alternative to what one might call “The Washington Way”.
               This contempt for the establishment runs deep.  Trump surely has not created it.  He is merely exploiting it for his own advantage.  The same thing that fuels the Trump campaign has also fueled the Arab Spring and countless movements before that.  It can be found in politics, in music, in art, and even in religion.
               Since the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenburg Church in Germany in 1517 to challenge the authority of Pope Leo X and the Roman Catholic Church, through the ensuing Protestant Reformation and right up to our present day Christians have rightfully asked themselves if they could trust the traditions and the teachings of their church.  Many have concluded they could.  Some have determined that they mostly agreed but questioned certain teachings or practices.  Still, these were not enough to divide themselves and attempt to form a new church.  Still others have decided that their differences were beyond reconciling.  These choose to leave either to join another church group or to form a new one.
               The Protestant Reformation ushered in the age of denominations.  Prior to Luther Western Europe only really knew of one Christian Church:  The Roman Catholic Church.  There were a few small fringe groups that rose up from time to time but they never gained much of a following and were quickly denounced by Rome as heretics.  Luther himself was declared a heretic but by then times had changed.  A greater number of people were feeling resentment against Rome and Luther effectively gained a wider audience through the newly invented printing press that enabled him to get his ideas out to the masses like no one before him could do.  He also translated the Bible into German and again with the printing press, made copies of scriptures available for the masses.  This was the first time many people were able to actually read the Bible for themselves.  As is usually the case, when believers immerse themselves in scripture they are awakened to the Will of God.  The result was a following strong enough to break with the Pope and form a new Church, the Lutheran Church.  Almost immediately others were emboldened to do the same, and within a mere two years Europe found itself home to three major Christian groups:  The Catholic, the Lutheran, and the Reformed.  As time marched forward each of these “Big Three” birthed numerous other groups until today there are so many denominations that I would not begin to name them here.
               For myself I am a member of a small denomination known as the Church of the Brethren.  I will not bore you with too much of our history except to say we began in 1708 in Germany, migrated to North America beginning in 1719, and today boast of about 1.1 million worshipers worldwide, including 100,000 in the United States.
               The Church of the Brethren is rooted in a movement known as Pietism.  Some of the early proponents of Pietism include, Jan Hus, Philipp Jakob Spener, August Hermann Franke, Gottfried Arnold and Earnest Christoph Hochman Von Hochenau.  At its core Pietism sought to encourage a holy and upright life devoted to faithful obedience to Christ and the New Testament.  There is a strong emphasis on scripture, prayer and the Holy Spirit’s presence and ministry in the life of the believer.  In large part Pietism teaches that each believer receives inspiration from the Holy Spirit and thus has a portion of Truth to share with the Church.  While this was intended to bring spiritual renewal and awakening to existing churches, some, like Hochman von Hochenau, were not satisfied with that and found themselves discouraged by a hesitant reception on the part of the established leaders.  This, coupled with the urgency they felt from their own experience, led a few to separate themselves and form a new church or to simply seek to live faithfully without the structure of a church.
               In 1708 a young man named Alexander Mack, Sr. entered into a period of intense Bible study and prayer with seven other believers from the Reformed Church in Germany.  Mack was introduced some years earlier to the Pietistic teachings of Spener, Franke, Arnold and Von Hochenau.  Mack, constantly seeking spiritual Truth, also was introduced to another movement that preceded Pietism called Anabaptism.  Rooted in the 16th Century reformation as an extension of Ulrich Zingli’s Reformed movement, Anabaptism was perhaps the most radical theology of that day.  With an emphasis on believer’s baptism and a literal interpretation of the New Testament this group taught such doctrines as non-oath swearing, nonviolence, nonconformity to the world, and no creed but Christ.  The Anabaptists held a high view of Jesus and felt that his words and teachings held precedent over all others.  In particular the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) became the bedrock of their beliefs.  They also saw the Church as a distinct, separate body consisting of those who surrendered themselves fully to Christ.  Within the Church it was felt that all believers were equal and God’s Truth was revealed through the body, that is, through the collective understanding of the members of the Church who prayerfully sought God’s Will.
Mack was convinced that the teachings of Pietism and the teachings of Anabaptism were compatible and in fact together represented a deeper understanding of God and His Will than either could do alone. Eventually these eight persons reached the decision that they could not remain in their local church.  So, they held a service of baptism and broke ties with the Reformed movement.  This eventually became what we know today as the Brethren movement, of which the Church of the Brethren is a part.
Since its beginnings in 1708 Mack’s little following has had its share of divisions.  From the original eight we now have today at least five distinct groups including the Church of the Brethren, Brethren Church, Dunkard Brethren, Old German Baptist Brethren and the Grace Brethren.
While all this history is interesting (to me, at least) I really want to focus on the Church of the Brethren today, for that is what I am most familiar with.  The Church of the Brethren, or COB for short, is experiencing some tension within its membership.  Many are wrestling with such issues as biblical authority and inspiration, abortion, peacemaking, and the LGBTQ debate.  In this sense we are no different than nearly all American Christians.  These are hot topics throughout our country. 
There was a time when the Brethren cherished their unity.  Perhaps because of our Pietistic roots we managed to hold one another in fellowship while respecting views and interpretations that at times caused disagreement.  Following the Anabaptist vision of the Church we Brethren have always believed that no one person should be elevated over the rest and the Body of Christ, the Church, must be a model of unity and fellowship for the world to see.  We have strenuously driven ourselves to place Christian fellowship and love at the core of who we are.  Differences have arisen, to be sure.  And on occasion we have divided into two or more separate groups.  Yet even in our division we strive to maintain a sense of cooperation, respect, and common identity.
In the past twenty years or so, however, there is an increasing sense of restlessness and division within the ranks of the COB.  Like much of the nation we are experiencing a growing distrust of authority and a questioning of our theological interpretations.  It is difficult to pinpoint the beginning of this trend.  It may have been our Annual Conference of 1979.  Annual Conference is the highest authority in our Church structure.  It consists of delegates representing each congregation, proportionate to the size of its membership.  In 1979 Annual Conference dealt with a paper called Biblical Inspiration And Authority.  It revealed how deeply we were divided in our understanding of scripture, with some people holding to a very literal, inerrant view, while others considered the Bible to be more inspired but not inerrant.  The latter understood that scripture needed to be interpreted and is more of a guide rather than a rulebook. 
In the end the paper was drawn up with three columns, one representing the more conservative position and the other representing a more liberal view.  In the middle were those areas where there was full agreement.  It was a compromise solution that did manage to maintain unity within the Church.
By 1983 another hot issue arose.  Human Sexuality From A Christian Perspective was a groundbreaking document that was ahead of its time.  It too acknowledge that we are not of one accord in our understanding of such concerns as homosexuality.  Though in the end the paper does state that we consider homosexuality to be an unacceptable lifestyle for believers yet there is a strong emphasis on encouraging dialogue and remaining open to a continued sense of revealed Truth.
Other issues followed a similar pattern.  Abortion, nonviolence, Church and State, and much more.  In a sense we embrace our differences while seeking as much common ground as can be found and attempting to focus on that.  Holding on to our rich heritage of Anabaptist community and Pietist individual interpretation we have carefully steered our way through many obstacles.
All of that appears to be threatened, however.  Perhaps mirroring the political polarization that is defining our country these days we see more and more signs of intolerance within our denomination and many congregations.  A number of local congregations have left the denomination.  Several others are discussing doing so.  Still others have not really brought it up but have so changed their system of governance  that they no longer follow the Pietistic influence nor the Anabaptist heritage that has been at the very heart of the term “Brethren”.  Instead they are embracing a totally different model.  These churches are adopting a more “apostolic” structure where all decisions and authority rests with a very small group of self-appointed leaders.  Under this system a great emphasis is placed on expectations of membership, but those expectations are defined and enforced by the leaders.  These leaders are empowered to unilaterally discipline members as they see fit even to the point of excommunication – a practice that was abandoned in the COB over 100 years ago.
There is much more I could say in opposition to such trends but I suspect there are many, many variations embodied within the COB and as I am not familiar with all of them I will take another approach.  I would like instead to offer specific reasons why I support remaining actively involved with the denominational entity that we call the Church of the Brethren. 


1.  ACCOUNTABILITY.
There is a tremendous danger when too much power is placed in the hands of a very small group of people without a reasonable system of checks and balances.  This is what makes the United States Constitution such a valuable and successful document.  Government is divided into the Legislative Branch (which itself is divided into two chambers), Executive Branch, and Judicial Branch.  Each one holds the other accountable.  And all three are subject to the approval of the citizens of the nation through the process of elections. 
For the Church, a denominational structure provides a sense of accountability.  If a pastor or congregational leaders begin to slip into errant ways there is a process by which members can appeal for justice and damage control.  In the COB we have an Ethics In Ministry Relations polity that details what is expected of an ordained minister and how discipline will be conducted through the local district.  We also have a document called Congregational Ethics Polity which does a similar thing for relationships within congregations.
How many times have we seen once legitimate church fellowships morph into a cult behind the charismatic, egotistic leadership of a person who refused to be held accountable to anyone and who denounced denominational structure as counter-productive?  Examples abound, including David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple (Jones began as a Methodist minister), The Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon (who once was a Presbyterian minister), The Children of God and David Berg (a former Disciples of Christ pastor), Herbert Armstrong (World Wide Church of God).  These are just some of the more famous ones from the 20th Century. 
For every one who became famous there are no doubt hundreds you never heard of.  Most of these follow a similar pattern.  They despise denominations primarily because they know that Church officials will try to control their excesses.  In many cases they were disciplined by their denomination or simply defrocked, that is, their ministerial credentials were revoked due to unethical behavior and/or false teachings.  Many never joined with a denomination.  They saw from the beginning that they would be limited in what they could get away with if they joined a larger group.  As a general rule of thumb such persons demand full control over their organization and loyal obedience from their followers.  A denomination is no guarantee against such practices but it is an extra layer of protection.

2.  AUTHENTICITY.
“authenticity”:  1)  real or genuine; not copied  2) true and accurate  (Merriam-Webster dictionary)
In 1983 I did my pastoral internship at the Sun Valley Church of the Brethren in Birmingham, Alabama.  It was a tiny congregation with perhaps 30 people give or take.  It was one of only four congregations of our denomination in the entire state.  Combined these four had at the most about 200 members.  The District stretches through 5 states, from Alabama to North Carolina.    Consequently the Brethren were not known.  People were therefore suspicious of us.  On several occasions I was asked if we were a cult.  It was a natural question simply because we had not established a sense of authenticity.  People never heard of us and they knew nothing about it.  I cannot blame them for wondering if we were “real or genuine”; if our teachings were “true and accurate”.
By contrast in Pennsylvania, the Brethren have four districts with a total of 35,600+ members.  Just in Lancaster County, where I live, we have approximately 27 congregations.  The Brethren are well known around here and consequently we have established a sense of authenticity.  Authenticity builds trust.  To some degree it creates what is known in the business world as a “brand”.  Granted, there is some variance from one congregation of Brethren to another.  But generally the public, at least the larger Christian community, know and respect the name Church of the Brethren.
This kind of reputation, if you will, is not always present in a non-denominational church.  Not that it can’t be present.  By all means a non-denominational church can and usually does build credibility over time.  But I feel the challenge is a bit greater, especially at the beginning of the church’s life.

3.  MINISTRY & SERVICE OPPORTUNITY.
It is undisputable that we are stronger in numbers than we are alone.  By pooling together the resources of a denomination we can increase the scope and magnitude of our overall mission and be better equipped to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20).
For example, without the Church of the Brethren denomination there would be no Heifer International, On Earth Peace, Brethren Service Ministries, New Windsor (MD) Service Center, SERRV (Fair Trade retail), or Brethren Volunteer Service.  I realize many outside the COB may not recognize most of these agencies but they are all part of the Church of the Brethren or they began through the Church of the Brethren.  One could argue that there would be no Church World Service or the Peace Corps either, as the Brethren were instrumental in their formation.  The Peace Corp was formed when President John F. Kennedy invited members of the Church of the Brethren and the Mennonite Church to come to the White House and explain the success each of them had with their respective volunteer service agencies.  Using that as a model the Kennedy Administration developed the Peace Corps as a volunteer service-centered government agency designed to meet human need across the globe while building goodwill with foreign nations.
Clearly one of the most unique contributions of the COB is our Child Disaster Services.  In times of natural disaster, such as tornadoes or hurricanes where communities are virtually wiped out, the immediate reaction is to assess the physical damage and provide emergency shelter.  Often lost in the hectic confusion is the emotional health of the children whose lives have been uprooted and thrown into chaos.  All have suffered loss: for some it is the security of a home; for others it is the comfort of special toys or objects; and of course there are those who have lost a loved one, a pet, or some other object of love.  The Brethren have recognized the distinct needs represented by such crises and have responded with a special program designed specifically to provide healing and comfort from the emotional scars of disasters.  Child Disaster Services also give parents the assurance that their child is taken care of while they can go about the prolonged process of recovery form their loss.  We were on the breaking edge of this kind of service and remain the leading provider for it.
It is arguable that no single congregation could have done these things alone.  One might counter that there are para-church organizations that do similar work like these and a congregation could support that.  While such a point has some validity I would suggest that it is far from the same thing.  Congregations have no say in the values, management or mission of para-church groups.  Also it is a proven fact that the Church of the Brethren agencies, like many denominational programs, are far more efficient in their use of funds in part because of a much lower overhead and drastically reduced administrative costs.  Therefore it makes sense to me to work within the Church structure both as stewards of financial resources and because we are the owners and thus have more control over how the agency is run.

4.  BRANDING
I mentioned earlier that there is an element of branding, a set of characteristics that are recognizable and represent a sense of who we are.  This deserves a deeper look.  
In general denominations can each focus on an emphasis or two that is helpful for the entire Christian community.  Lutherans, for example, help us to remember that it is by grace we are saved, through faith.  Methodists and Wesleyans express their faith as a life inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Pentecostals remind us that the Holy Spirit gives each believer one or more gifts to be used within the context of the Church’s ministry.  The Reformed branch of the Church points us to our doctrines and the Truth of God revealed through the preached Word.  All of these are true and valuable.  Together they help to make the Christian witness whole.  There need not be competition as much as supplementation as we embrace our differences while focusing on the common confession that Jesus is Lord and Savior of the World.
I believe the Brethren have a contribution to make to this conversation as well.  Our emphasis on peace and social justice rank high on the list.  As one of the three historic peace churches, along with the Mennonites and the Quakers, we have consistently and distinctly called the world community to examine their thinking, including their politics, in light of the words of Jesus.  He who devoted his life to unconditional love for all clearly calls us to do the same.
In a similar way the Brethren have actively and consistently spoken out against social injustice, oppression, and poverty even before such issues became popular within Christian circles.
Because of our denominational emphasis on these topics we have greatly influenced countless Church and government programs with an approach that otherwise would have been overlooked.  This kind of living heritage is worthy of continuance.  Dissolving the denominational model would greatly increase the risk of losing much of these as the tendency for independent churches is to focus instead on inward, local ministries and bigger, fancier, high-tech worship auditoriums.

CONCLUSION
Please do not misunderstand me.  The Brethren are by no means without fault.  We have indeed fallen short of the Call of Christ in many ways.  I readily admit that we have much growth yet to take place.  However, I am convinced that such growth is likely to be realized more readily if we work at it together as a group through Annual Conference and our districts than by each going our separate ways.  And I suspect the same is true for other denominations as well.
In the Gospel of John, chapter 17, Jesus offered what we often call the High Priestly Prayer near the end of the Last Supper. In it he prayed for the unity of his followers, not just the disciples but all who would believe.

20  "My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,
21  that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
22  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one:
23  I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.  (
John 17:20-23 (NIV)  [bold type added for emphasis by me]
            It is this unity that I seek as we strive to grow together in love and understanding and thereby strengthen our witness to the World.

            Clearly we live in a divided world.  Polarization appears to be as extreme as ever ideologically and economically.  I believe the Christian Church can be a powerful model to our culture of how people can live and function together while not only acknowledging our differences, but embracing them in a never ending search for Truth.

G. D. Gehr
October 5, 2016
Comments are encouraged.