Traditions have necessarily changed over the past eighteen months. Annual family gatherings are moved outside, postponed or cancelled altogether. Funerals are nearly unrecognizable, and a baby being born is celebrated through group text messages and shared albums. A recent commercial declares there is no normal, and that seems to be the understatement of the year.
Our neighborhood was created as a conference and retreat center where the Second General Missionary Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South first convened in 1913. It’s been a difficult and challenging time to be in the destination business. Somehow we have held it together, but things have changed here too.
With only 2,700 some odd residents, and a smaller unknown portion of those being full-time, it is a close-knit community. We’re not all part of the Methodist Episocopal Church, but we are all neighbors that benefit from living in a place where the mission is to be ”a place of Christian hospitality where lives are transformed through renewal of soul, mind and body.” It’s subtle, but this mission is behind every decision that’s made around here.
There were always regular community events pre-pandemic: campfires, outdoor movies, concerts in the large auditorium, hiking trips, or excursions for dinner and a play in a city nearby. Twice monthly there were also Hymn Sings. Talented singers and those, like myself, that can’t carry a tune in a bucket were encouraged to come together in the auditorium to learn the nuiances of a favorite hymn, words that had mysteriously changed over the years or had meanings no one ever knew, and then they’d sing these old hymns from some of the oldest song hymnals ever printed. The Hymn Sing went online in early 2020. The Hymn Sing became Sing From Home.
An email goes out to the neighborhood distribution list every other week with an encouraging message, perhaps some of the nuances of that week’s featured hymn, and a YouTube link so that everyone can sing along from home. It’s been said these emails are passed across the country and, no doubt, to people all over the world that are or have been associated with the Assembly. A few days ago we received Hymn Sing 74.
Various people write these emails, but mostly it’s Linda Henley. This week she told the story of being a teenage delegate from Florida to the Lake Junaluska Youth and Missions Conference for six summers. It was during the closing service one summer that she felt the call to become a missionary to Africa. As her life unfolded, without fulfilling this call to Africa, Linda discovered that more often than not, the mission field is both inside and outside our own back door.
The last half of her email was one of the more special things I have heard someone say of the challenges we all face. I hope it will also encourage you to keep masking your love.
This past year and a half, in the deepest time of the pandemic, there was a call to missions as surely as the one I heard in Shackford Hall. Wearing masks, washing hands, social distancing, staying home, and receiving vaccinations were the most beautiful acts of kindness and solidarity I have ever witnessed in my lifetime. And, even though we may be weary and impatient, we can continue to do it as long as it takes, because it’s not about us and our rights, its about our love and responsibilities for the common good. “We the People….”
One piece of cloth has become a sacramental gift to the world. It serves as an “outward and visible sign” of the command to love neighbor as we love ourselves. When the call comes to be a missionary, location doesn’t matter. It’s learning to be the hands and feet of Jesus to the neighbors we’ve been given. The lives of God’s children depend upon it.
… Linda Henley