The Rev. Paul Perez talks about “the heart and hope” of United Methodism through the life of his mom and growing up years in Newburg UMC in Livonia.
Director of Connectional Ministry, Michigan Conference
Why am I United Methodist? This question is trending across the UM blogosphere, so I thought I would give it a try.
Why am I United Methodist?
The short answer — because my mom was United Methodist.
My mom, Jody, was a life-long United Methodist and member of Livonia: Newburg United Methodist Church from the time she was in second grade until her death. My dad, Ray, was raised Roman Catholic. When they decided to take their kids to church, they chose Newburg UMC. So, we were United Methodist. The choice stuck. My siblings and I were all baptized and confirmed there. I renewed my parents’ wedding vows on their 30th anniversary there. When my mom died suddenly at the age of 55, we held her funeral services there. Her ashes are interred in Newburg’s memorial garden.
I watched my mom grow in her faith over the years at Newburg. Especially impactful was her involvement in creating Newburg’s Non-Food Pantry. At a time in her life when she was struggling to understand the meaning and purpose of her life, the pantry filled that void. She volunteered faithfully on the weekends, learned every neighbor who utilized the pantry by name, and always made sure everyone’s favorite shampoo or lotion or toothpaste was in stock. Like all such ministries, I believe the pantry was just as important to my mom’s healing and well-being as it was to those who “shopped” for their monthly boxes of personal toiletries and cleaning supplies. I think, in many ways, it saved her and was a true, to use our Wesleyan language, means of grace in her life.
My mom and I did not always see eye to eye on everything when it came to our shared United Methodist faith. During college, when I declared my intention to be a United Methodist minister, she was initially hesitant, hopeful I would instead pursue her dream for me to be a medical doctor. She, eventually, had a change of heart. Likewise, when I shared with her my support of LBGTQ people in the life of the church, she was uncomfortable with my conviction. But over time, as family members and friends came out to her, she experienced a change of heart again.
When my mom and I would talk about our shared United Methodist faith and wonder about the big questions, the conversation almost always found its way to one core conviction — “God is love.” True to United Methodist form, the primacy of love grounded my mom’s theology, scriptural interpretation, and ethics.
Like many United Methodists, my mom did not wear her faith on her sleeve. She did, however, live her faith and would share its importance in her life when asked or when the moment was appropriate. When she invited people to join in volunteering or worship with her, the invitation usually resulted in a “yes” because it was based on relationship and mutual respect.
While I love my mom, I don’t think that her faith was heroic, singular, or unique. It was just solidly United Methodist. I’ve seen it among other United Methodists. I hope, by God’s grace, to live it in my life as well.
This is why I am a United Methodist.
Other Christian traditions have a love for the liturgy, a devotion to scripture or the eucharist, or prioritize the experiences of conversion or contemplative silence or speaking in tongues. This is their spiritual genius.
We have a love for an everyday faith, forged in the struggles of life, that sometimes messes with us and leads to unexpected places. We are devoted to growing in love of God and love of neighbor through concrete acts of mutual ministry. We prioritize holy conversations that change hearts; faith shared in the context of trusted relationships. We seek to be grounded in the encounter with God’s ever-present, expansive love. This is our spiritual genius.
As a church bureaucrat, I often get sucked into the gritty details of all the challenges facing the denomination — demographic changes, the decline in members and finances, and denominational fragmentation. This is a temptation to confuse the means for the end. Leaner structures, re-birthed denominations, well-written position statements, or innovative techniques are not the ends of a United Methodist faith, nor are they its hope.
Continuous encounters with God’s love. Life-affirming service. Heart-changing conversations. Faith shared among friends.
This is the end, the goal all those gritty details should point to.
This is how we think, feel, and embody the gospel of Jesus Christ in our peculiarly United Methodist way.
This is the heart and the hope of United Methodism.
This is why I am a United Methodist.
Thanks for the reminder, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day.