Saturday, May 7, 2016

West Branch Day 1

It has been such a full day that I need to begin writing about it now, even before it is over, in order to do it justice.
My 3-Day Immersion Experience in the West Branch Convocation began at 4:30 AM when my alarm went off and I was roused from a dreamless sleep in my Mechanicsburg bed.
Because today is Day 1 of my 21- Day Ultimate Cleanse (bad timing, I guess) I padded down to the kitchen and did not turn on the coffee pot.  Instead, I made some hot lemon water (yumm) and tried to wrap my head around the itinerary for the next 3 days.

I have really loved these 3-Day Immersion Experiences in the convocations because… I have little to do with the planning of them.  The “assignment” is for the leaders of the convocation to design a 3-day program for me that will show me what it is like to live and participate in God’s mission in that region.  If you’re a regular follower of this blog you’ve read about some of my past adventures.  Each of these trips is as different from the next one as could be… and each one is delightful.  I am learning so much about Central PA and God’s movement here.

For this 3-Day I packed my vestments, hat , stick and prayer book (natch- every 3-Day ends up with a church service); blue jeans, t-shirt and a heavy sweatshirt, Wellingtons, hiking boots, raincoat, a black suit and a little bag with lemons, herbal tea and almonds.  (Only a little easier than last time which also included fishing poles and yoga mats…)  I jumped into the Forrester and headed north.  By 9 AM I was greeting the Rev. David Culberton, and we were off to our first stop, Son Light House in Muncy.

 Son Light is a clothing/home goods/furniture/canned goods/fresh meat and produce distribution center that is directed by an ecumenical board and supported by more than 35 churches in the Greater Muncy area. Ken Frey, Director of the Son Light House met us at the low white brick building ( it used to be a Jehovah Witness’ Hall) and gave us a tour and a talk.  The Rev. Culbertson is a member of the board of Son Light.  The small building was stacked inside with pre-packed boxes of  food for distribution to seniors (PA Food Bank), a maze of canned goods on pallets, large brown bags and boxes packed for different sized families, a clothing section to rival any thrift store, and a library and toy area.  Ken told me that they are open on 2 weekdays every-other week.  On the days that they are open, they serve 300 families.  300.  Oh my.  I was moved by the passion of this octogenarian who understands his almost full time volunteer job to be a ministry following the commands of Christ to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. 
On most days, Ken is joined by his wife, Dorothy who manages the clothing section of the operation but Friday is  the Freys’ “day off” and because of my visit, Ken had agreed to  open up and show us around.

Next stop was the Muncy Historical Center and Museum where I had an engaging tour by Director Bill Poulton.  Bill has been in Muncy since the 1970s and married a local Muncy-ite, Linda.  To talk to him would make you think that he had been in Muncy forever!  Bill is an amazing storyteller and he had to select just a few things to show us in his limited time frame for our brief visit.  I learned about a tragic rafting accident in the Susquehanna River in the 1930s which had been documented on film and video, I “shook hands” (laid my hand in a plaster cast) with a man who had shaken the hand of a Civil war soldier who had shaken the hand of Abe Lincoln,  I learned about the town of Muncy as a prominent stop on the Underground Railroad and as a place of industry in the last century.  The museum is filled with artwork- both antique and brand new; I really liked this focus on  local fine arts in the museum.  Bill could have kept us all day, (and I would have been a willing audience member) but after we saw the impressive room-sized model of Fort Muncy, we had to depart for our lunch meeting with members of St. James.

Lunch was at a local deli/restaurant and about 8 parishioners took time from their day to meet for a mid-day meal and some easy conversation.  I love the fellowship on these 3-Days with parishioners whom, otherwise, I only get to see at Vestry meetings or at busy coffee hours.  I had a big bowl of delicious homemade Tomato Toscana soup.

I spent my afternoon in Williamsport with the Rev. Andy France.  Andy has been the chaplain at the Lycoming County Prison for more than a decade and I was eager to learn more about his ministry and to see the prison.  The Lycoming County Prison is downtown- right next to Kohl’s and Wegman’s. I have driven by it many times, and always thought that it was a library or some innocuous office building.   No, it is a  prison with more than 200 male and female inmates.   After a short introductory conversation with the warden and his two assistant wardens, we set out on a tour. There are different “control centers” (my words) that look almost like sound booths in a high school auditorium; the control centers are darkened rooms with big electronic switchboards that have monitors and lights and switches that control the locks on the cell block gates and the individual cell doors.  Each control center is staffed by a guard who looks out through the big window in the center onto 4 cellblocks.  Each cellblock houses 20 inmates in double occupancy cells with a small community room.  It was recreation time when I arrived and some of the inmates sat at tables in the community room playing cards, some watched tv, some were sleeping in their cells and others were using their recreation time in the gym.  I have to admit, it was eye-opening for me to see this all at work (it was my first time in a prison) and something about it all made me the tiniest bit anxious. It is an unsettling environment.  In spite of how clean it was, how courteous the staff was, how organized and controlled it was… something about the entire operation made me feel out of sorts. And I suppose that’s a good thing.  It is not natural for people to live this way.  I learned that this jail houses people on a short-term basis and so the opportunity for people like Andy to form relationships with the inmates and to really effect some deep transformation (or set them up for God to effect a transformation) is limited.  Nonetheless, Andy works hard at his chaplaincy- teaching bible studies that invite deep reflection, offering one-on-one pastoral meetings, hearing confessions and conducting services.  Andy works out of a small white washed office that is jammed with bibles of every description:  paperback NIV translations, picture bibles, King James leather-bound bibles, tracts, and other spiritual material-  the Koran and the Torah, among them.  While Andy and I were in his office we could see through the window into the hall where 30 inmates had gathered with a visiting imam for Jumah-  Friday prayers.   I was reminded, again, f Matthew 25 in which Jesus talks about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and… visiting those in prison.  This is a special ministry in which we are called to connect, each to each on level that transcends judgment and focuses, instead, on our common humanity , on our continual need to be shaped by God, and on humility.  I have great admiration for those who work in this field.

Andy is also involved in the Bald Eagle Project which is a multi-disciplinary effort to stem the tide of the heroin epidemic in Lycoming County. We met with Steve Shope, the Director of the Project and a few other board members over at Penn College where I learned about the prevalence of heroin/opioid addiction in this area and how through education, treatment, prevention, data monitoring and enforcement, this group is working with county and state organizations to stem the tide of this overwhelming problem.   This is a complex problem that often begins with prescription painkillers (opioids) that are used legally, and then abused when the individual becomes, often unwittingly, addicted.  Heroin is a cheap replacement for prescription opioids and what might have begun as a legal and authentic post-surgery pain reducing effort often ends up in illegal and dangerous addictive behavior.  Steve taught me that opioid addiction is a problem that affects all ages and economic groups-  from teenagers to the elderly and is, increasingly, a middle and working class problem borne of the need for surgeries and pain relief from labor intensive work in industry.  When I asked how the churches could support this work, Steve said that there is a great need for education and also for de-stigmatization around the opioid/heroin problem.  He said that when communities (congregations) can lower the stigma of heroin addiction through education, a new door is opened for help and treatment.  Steve said that when he speaks at a church meeting he is often met with a long line of people with tears in their eyes afterwards – all of whom have a personal connection to this epidemic.  Check out the work of this impressive group _ including an 8 minute video- at

My evening was spent with the good people of the GLEAM churches:  Good Shepherd, Our Saviour and All Saints with their rector, The Rev. Lauri Kerr and her wife, Mary. We had a wonderful dinner at the Williamsport Area Airport and the Cloud Nine restaurant and shared conversation and fellowship.  I learned about the successful ministry at these three parishes as we broke bread-  I had a warm salad with ahi tuna, roasted red peppers, tomato, field greens and a balsamic vinaigrette.  It was relaxing and fun.  We told stories of kids and grandkids, traveling and watched a few small planes make their way down the small runway and into the night sky.

We closed out the evening by joining The Rev. Veronica Chappell, Becky Wagner-Pizza and postulant Kyle Murphy for First Friday in downtown Williamsport where we visited an art gallery/pottery studio, a chocolate shop, peered in the window of the (first and) last independent bookstore in town and ran into Eve Archer, 90 year old Trinity parishioner who has an art show at the Genetti Hotel.  As we wandered into the historic lobby of the hotel, we threaded our way through a hundred or so prom-goers in their tuxes and evening gowns!

There’s more to tell, but it is bedtime.  Because tomorrow has its own full agenda.

Grateful for the many blessings of the day-  particularly the ability to learn and see new things. 

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