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Rev. Bill Huegel
Rev. Bill Huegel

FORUM ON FAITH

Danbury church develops a way to help the hungry.

by Rev. Bill Huegel

Published: Saturday, February 21, 2015

Danbury News Times

When I arrived at Central Christian Church in downtown Danbury on the first Sunday of October 2013 as interim minister, I had a lot to learn about my new city.

On my first Sunday here, we were well into the worship service when a man came through the sanctuary doors. He looked troubled and needy. He began to pace back and forth across the back of the church. He came part-way down the aisle, then turned and walked back.

All of this was happening during my sermon. I was just getting to know people here. I didn't know whether this man was a regular in worship or not.

The congregation didn't seem disturbed. They continued to listen -- and finally, the man left. I later learned this man had come for the food.

Central Christian Church has a wonderful tradition. Few people leave at the end of the worship service. Most people move to the Fellowship Hall, where coffee and goodies are served -- a smattering of cookies, cake, fruit, crackers and cheese, along with freshly made coffee.

People sit at tables and engage in conversation. It's quite delightful. It's clear this group of folks enjoy being together and talking.

The man who walked through our church doors was in need of food, which we gladly serve to everyone at the end of each worship service. On this particular Sunday, he was early. He had hoped to come in at refreshment time. His emotional needs were too great to benefit from sitting through worship.

A similar thing happened a few weeks later. I was learning that Danbury has some hungry people.

It's important for us to know that we can really help the people who need it most. If there are people in need who, out of their own sense of pride and independence, will not come inside a church to ask, then how can we possibly help them?

For many people who might be in need, I think churches are simply not places to go for any other reason than to pray and to worship -- and perhaps they stay away out of fear that if they came inside, God would not be pleased. So, how can we help?

I learned of an organization in town called ARC -- The Association of Religious Communities -- and the many services they coordinate.

Of special interest to me was ARC's food pantry called "Comida" (now with a new refrigerator), which has the support of a "food rescue" program from Trader Joe's. With the help of donated leftover produce, Comida has been able to expand its offerings and provide families with fresher, healthier foods.

Rev. P.J. Leopold, executive director of ARC, said it is always a struggle to get enough food. Comida depends on donations. As I listened to that need, I wondered what we, as one church, could do to help.

It dawned on me that after our fellowship hour each Sunday, a few people could go over to a table set up for the purpose of bagging up bulk-purchased rice and beans. The food would be poured into large plastic bins and then cups would be provided to fill the bags. With a half dozen people working on this project, we could finish it up in 15 minutes. The bins now loaded with filled bags would be taken to the food pantry during the week.

It worked. Our folks voted to do it. They engage in the work happily and joyously. We know the food is going to meet real tangible needs.

Our churches exist to meet spiritual needs. We do that consistently and effectively. Yet none of us Christians can escape the words of Jesus (in Matthew 25:37-40),

"Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'

"The King will reply, `Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'"

I am grateful for the ministry of ARC and their help in engaging Central Christian Church in this tangible ministry of helping feed the hungry in our Danbury community.

The Rev. Bill Huegel, Interim Pastor, Central Christian Church, 71 West Street, Danbury, CT 06810. He can be reached at: 475-529-3026



Rev. Garrett M. Mettler
Rev. Garrett M. Mettler

FORUM ON FAITH

Religious beliefs carry tensions of what is real and 'fairy stories'.

by Rev. Garrett M. Mettler

Published: Saturday, February 7, 2015

Danbury News Times

Not long ago, I happened to choose a lunch table at the school where I am the chaplain where a lively conversation was taking place. One of our high school juniors, a thoughtful, sincere, and passionate young man, was engaged in a conversation with a widely admired faculty member about his beliefs.

This faculty member had spoken in one of our chapel services two years ago about why he is an atheist, explaining his conviction that the ideals of religion are achievable without the baggage of God and especially the bureaucracies of churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples.

The young man still remembered that talk and had questions. Essentially, he was curious to learn why his teacher was so convinced about the nonexistence of God.

Underlying his questions, I think I detected a desire to compare the intersection between the things of our lives that seem certain - what we can see, hear, touch, and cite facts about - and things that are hopeful and inspiring, but mysterious. When I took a seat at the table, he was presented with two very distinct perspectives on where we can find our most abiding values and anchor our most desired hopes.

I believe that a tension lives within most of us, expressed in the questions I heard at that lunchtime table. We are drawn to hopeful possibilities that are not within our own power to make reality, but we are much more comfortable dealing with the things we can control.

I believe we yearn to connect with a transcendent being, to be a part of something that is greater than ourselves, but we are afraid of what other people will think of us in this data-driven age if we appear too caught up in what my aunt used to call "fairy stories."

Still, I think we want to find devotions that give us meaning, hope, inspiration and challenge. And we want the object of those devotions to be graspable. But those whose devotion is a close relationship with God and those who are devoted to ideals grounded in human ingenuity and determination are not necessarily as far apart as they might seem.

As one of the former, I am not satisfied with the language of theology alone. I need to be engaged in regular practices that make the love and peace of God palpable. My faith feeds on a steady diet of active expressions that renew the strength of God within me.

Those who seek the betterment of their own lives and our human condition make plans for how to accomplish their goals, but they are not guaranteed their efforts will be successful. They put faith in their good intentions and the power of their determination to achieve what they desire. The mystery and delight of putting my faith in the graciousness of God is that I still have the strength of my own desire and determination, and I have an unyielding foundation of support beneath me.

It is not hard to look around at the many problems around us and feel adrift in a world spiraling downward from the depleting influences of our own power - which we can see, hear, touch and cite facts about. But when I look instead at the power that God has offered to humanity, above and beyond our own, I cannot help but be excited about a future that looks much different.

Not to a distant future after the many trials and uncertainties of this life, but a present composed of many acts of divinely inspired caring. Acts whose motivation is empowerment, justice and cherishing the dignity of every person involved - acts that embody the character of God above the character of humanity.

This expression of faith is what I understand true religion to be. It is a marriage between the things of our lives that seem certain and the things that are hopeful and inspiring but mysterious. It is what I think the inquiring junior at my school is curious about.

If God is there, how can we know and see God involved in our world? When we risk looking beyond only our own abilities and desires, we can find the enormity of life God has in store for us.

The Rev. Garrett M. Mettler, Chaplain, Wooster School, 91 Miry Brook Rd., Danbury, CT. He can be reached at: garrett.mettler@woosterschool.org or 203-830-3979



Rev. Phyllis J. Leopold
Rev. Phyllis J. Leopold

FORUM ON FAITH

King's rise shows how little things can make a big difference.

by Rev. Phyllis J. Leopold

Published: Saturday, January 17, 2015

Danbury News Times

It's that time of year when we pause to celebrate a wonderful and hard earned holiday. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did a great deal for our nation. He even gave his life.

I've always been fascinated by the way he first became famous. It was not in the usual way. It was not because he served the biggest church in the world. Nor was it because he had earned, so to speak, some great ministerial stripes.

The situation was much simpler.

The clergy in his town had gathered to plan their annual Thanksgiving Service. He was "the new kid on the block." The group of clergy did the customary thing. They asked the new minister in town if he would be the guest preacher. And, he said yes.

That was it. One community sermon. And, it blew people's hair back.

My mother, and much of her generation, was raised in a church which put a high value on "thou shall not." For instance, shall not curse, drink, dance, or gamble. For my grandmother, and many in her generation, the list included shall not wear lipstick.

I'm glad I came up at a time when the emphasis of the United Methodist church moved in a new direction. As a Sunday School child, Confirmation Candidate and later, theology student, the focus on getting close to God was not just on what "not to do" but also and maybe even more-so on what "to do."

Some say the downside of focusing on what "to do" is that people end up doing too much. They "don't know how to say no." I understand the downside and frequently get caught up in it.

Yet, I'm still glad my faith formation was set in a positive context. The kind that includes "you should not" yet also emphasizes what "you shall do."

Several of us recently had a very interesting conversation at ARC which had to do with building a list of "hot topics." The list included many subjects, such as: race, gun violence, effective policing, mental health, homelessness, climate change, and religious relations in other countries.

One person said a hot topic for him is "the little things."

He then gave several examples of how neighbors cared for neighbors when he was growing up and he lamented how he has seen that value erode. That turned our conversation in another direction.

Suddenly, we were all talking about God.

We talked about the "little things" we learned while growing up in our different communities of faith. A Jewish mother in our conversation wondered if her children would pass these things on "when they have children."

What Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. did at that Thanksgiving Service was, in the big scheme of things, very little. He was invited to give a brief sermon and he simply said "yes." The clergy took a risk on the new kid. He could have turned out to be a dud.

About 10 years ago, our federal government made grants for special projects so communities would have the funding they needed to celebrate the life of MLK. The purpose of the program was to help people see the holiday not as a "day off" but as a "day on." ARC applied for a grant and was awarded funding. The grant was used so people in the Greater Danbury area, especially youth, could do things to keep the spirit of Rev. King and his "dream" alive.

For me, a reason for believing in and following God is because there is nothing else like this supreme being who calls and sends ordinary people to have all sorts of dreams of making the world a better place.

I tend to be interested in hot topics that have large scale implications. Yet that conversation about the "little things" has really stayed on my mind. It's just a "little thing" to bring a pot of soup to a sick person. But if you've ever been the recipient of such kindness then you know how that can be a "big thing."

I don't know what will happen to our list of "hot topics." What I do know is that there are a lot of them. Given the persistent gridlock at many levels in our society, it is hard to not give up.

It's hard to keep dreaming. Even harder to "dream big."

But that's okay.

Some of the best things in our nation were started by people who were asked to do a "little thing" and said "yes."

Rev. Phyllis J. Leopold is the Executive Director of The Association of Religious Communities (ARC), in Danbury, CT.  She can be reached at: 203-792-9450 ext. 102.



Chaplan Shazeeda Khan
Chap. Shazeeda Khan

FORUM ON FAITH

Facing the test of the worldly life.

by Chaplan Shazeeda Khan

Published: Saturday, January 3, 2015

Danbury News Times

Scholar Ibn Taimiya said, "The complete recognition of God and having the proper love for Him cannot exist in the heart without having an overriding effect in outward deeds."

Trusting that all of God's decisions are beneficial to us as a source of spiritual elevation -- Ibn Taimiya says that strengthens us in navigating worldly challenges, sets our moral compass, and contributes to unprejudiced actions and reactions.

Prophet Mohammad (with peace) said: "Wondrous are the believers' affairs. There's good in all their affairs. When something pleasing happens, they express gratefulness, and that's good for them; and when something displeasing happens, they express endurance, and that's good for them."

The Prophet Ayoub/Job (with peace) -- who transcended his worldly conditions, whether in comforts or hardships -- taught us how to have integrity with our Lord. He exemplified just conduct. His ability to detach himself from eagerness and love for this world and finding balance, where the world is in the hand but not in the heart, was key in reaching such closeness to his Lord.

That's the challenge for Muslims -- to live in this world without its adornments becoming the end goal. In a sermon, the Prophet Muhammad said: "Don't curse this worldly life. It's a vehicle for the believer through which he can do good..."

It's possible that we may be defined by others, or even by ourselves, through our possessions or accomplishments. However, such a definition is superficial, based on perception which may not be grounded in reality of who we really are.

Prophet Ayoub was defined on that superficial level by his community, but that wasn't his reality. Quran: "Truly! We found him (Ayoub) patient. How excellent a worshipper! Verily, he was often in repentance to Us."

Commentary follows: Satan overheard a group of angels discussing Ayoub as "The best creature on Earth today, a man of noble character who displays great patience and always remembers his Generous Lord. He's an excellent model for worshippers. In return, his Lord has blessed him with long life and abundant riches, yet he never became arrogant or selfish; he feeds and clothes the poor and buys slaves to set them free. He makes those who receive his charity feel as if they are favoring him, so kind and gentle is he."

Annoyed by this, Satan concluded that Ayoub was an excellent worshipper only because God had given him so much. To prove Ayoub's sincerity, God tried Ayoub by taking away everything -- including all his wealth, his children, and his health.

After enduring this test for seven years, Ayoub's wife's frustration had reached its limits, but Ayoub's response to her was: "I'm ashamed to call on my Lord to remove the hardships, for I haven't suffered longer than the years of good health and plenty that I enjoyed." He admonished her for being tempted by Satan and told her to leave.

Ayoub, after seeing his last blessing leave, finally turned to God in supplication: "'Verily, distress has seized me, and You are the Most Merciful of all those who show mercy,' God answered his call, and removed his distresses." (Quran).

There are many takeaways from Prophet Ayoub's life: his privileges didn't lead him to any type of arrogance or injustice but rather to gratefulness, humility, generosity, and kindness. Acknowledging the station of his Lord, Ayoub didn't blame Him or question His decisions about the conditions he faced; when God tested him with prosperity, he was grateful, and when God tested him tribulations, he was patient and sought mercy.

Muslims understand that this worldly life is the testing phase, and we aren't promised a rose garden here. Quran: "We'll test you with something of fear, hunger, loss of wealth, lives and fruits, but give good tidings to those who patiently persevere when disaster strikes them, saying, `Indeed we belong to God, and indeed to Him is our return.' They are the ones to whom descend blessings from their Lord and mercy; it's those who are the guided."

When tested with ease or hardships, Muslims are commanded to actions and reactions that are thoughtful and measured -- reflecting a sense of justice and integrity. Brutality, oppression, or disenfranchisement aren't actions pleasing to God. Living in a false reality is no excuse for injustice, as God has provided us with adequate information to know reality -- as well as laws and examples of how to live within the boundaries decreed.

Chaplain Shazeeda Khan is the Director of Islamic Education, Baitul Mukarram Masjid of Greater Danbury, 339 Main Street, Danbury, CT 06810. She can be reached: shazeedak@charter.net.


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