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Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2009 Archives > November-December 2009 > Conspiring and Revolting for a Season of Peace

A student at Star School in Rwanda must hike about 1/2 mile downhill through rugged terrain and carry water in canisters. Courtesy of Chris Goff
Conspiring and Revolting
for a Season of Peace

By Kelly C. Martini

The Tutsi boy was 11 years old when the genocide happened in his Rwandan community. Hutu rebels attacked with machetes, separating him and his mother from his father and several siblings.

The two spent five days in a latrine. His mother died there and Tutsi soldiers rescued him. The boy lived with soldiers -- not knowing if his family had any survivors -- until years later, he found two younger sisters alive.

A decade later, the young man lives in a special house caring for the girls. Households headed by young adults are not uncommon in a land where genocide wreaked havoc for 10 years. What is unusual is the movement across the United States to change the focus of the weeks before Christmas from materialism to Advent and compassion.

The Rwandan boy's house was built because of the Advent Revolution (  ) of Thomasville (Ga.) First United Methodist Church and members who took a call to simplicity and concerned action seriously.

The church took a term usually associated with war -- revolution -- and redefined it as an act of peace. The result has been the creation of relationships with sisters and brothers in Rwanda, a transforming movement from the secular habits of the Christmas season, and a churchwide sense of community.

Thomasville Church challenged each member to spend $50 less during the Christmas season and put it to work building "Homes of Hope" in Rwanda.

Chris Goff's family participated fully. "We sat down with our kids and made decisions with them on what gifts they wanted to give up for Christmas and how they wanted to contribute," Goff says.

Other families and their children sacrificed in different ways.

"One child's grandparents gave him a gift of $50 to spend on whatever he wanted and $50 to give away," says Goff, First Church's director of outreach and discipleship. "He chose to give all $100."

Another boy went to the woods behind his house, gathered pine branches, and spent his time binding it for fire kindling. He went from door to door selling it to raise $50 for the revolution.

The experience both bound families together within the church and fostered relationships with different family units half a world away.

Goff and other parishioners traveled to Rwanda the past two summers to visit and build relationships with the orphans living in the eight houses they have constructed. The revolution will continue this year with the focus on funding to complete a 200-bed dormitory for orphans in the same community.

The 2009 trip to Rwanda occurred during the church's Vacation Bible study. The groups in the U.S. and Rwanda exchanged "YouTube" videos sharing personal stories of their lives and happenings. Both groups learned while using technology to create community.

A child turns the handle of a water pump in Busowobi, Uganda. Courtesy Ecumenical Water Network
Revolt against commercialism
The U.S. children acquired a more global picture and concern. What started in Advent continued as a revolt against corporations who ruthlessly market to children and young adults. Spending more than $15 billion annually on marketing to children, corporations use television, the Internet, text messages, Twitter, cell phones, fast food toys and more to create desire for a material item or image. Research shows that when young people feel they cannot survive without the material things they want, this often leads to depression, anxiety and stress as the desire for these things is insatiable.

Ethan Wier, 14, and his brother, Seth, 9, were two of the Thomasville youth who revolted against the commercial bombardment and started their own marketing campaign. They wore Advent Revolution T-shirts to school to begin dialogues with their peers to educate and help move them toward compassion, rather than materialism.

The revolution "shakes us up," says Jeanene Wier, the boys' mother. "It gets us out of our same old patterns and norms to do something in a different way."

Her sons also created a mural of one Rwandan child's face and cut it into tiles. Hanging a blank slate at the front of the sanctuary, the youth placed one of the tiles on the broken picture each time a $50 goal was met. Finally, the picture was complete. The church celebrated that it had come together for a common goal.

"It's easy to give someone a gift who we have a relationship with," Weir says. "It's not so easy to give a gift to someone we don't know. But that's what Christ's salvation did for us, and it was life-changing."

Weir knows that the church's gifts and small sacrifices are life-changing for some of her Rwandan sisters and brothers. She has seen the "Advent Revolution" change the mindset of the entire church, bringing members and friends together for a Christ-centered cause.

The congregation is in it for the long haul.

"Rwandans have been disappointed and abandoned before," she says. "When we returned the second year, we could see that folks were surprised to see us." But this revolution is about creating and maintaining relationships, about knowing people's names, and watching each other's children grow and thrive." Church members receive as much as they give from the people they have grown to know.

Conspire for clean water
Thomasville First Church's revolution is based on a movement entitled the "Advent Conspiracy," Churches conspire to take back the weeks before Christmas when Christians historically await the arrival of the Prince of Peace. The movement's goals are:

- Worship Fully.

- Spend Less.

- Give More.

- Love All.

The Advent Conspiracy Web site promotes a water well-building initiative in underdeveloped countries, but the program does not mandate the ways for people to be involved. Congregations and families choose their own path to compassion during the season. No giving goes through the Advent Conspiracy Web site.

One family made a conscious decision not to exchange gifts last year. "Instead we signed up to serve a meal on Christmas Eve day at a rescue mission. We took the grandchildren along, and they served bottles of water while we dished up the meal," writes Jan Pierce on the Advent Conspiracy blog.

Pierce and her family saw the opportunity as a chance to give rather than receive and to set an example for the younger family members about the season's meaning.

Pearl River United Methodist Church, a small congregation in Louisiana, used the Advent Conspiracy information to raise more than $5,000 for local and global mission projects. Members gave an average of $50 each.

"Before I came to this church, there was virtually no missions giving, and this project, among other things, has helped open the eyes of our church to how God is working all over the world -- and how we can contribute -- even small amounts," blogs the Rev. Ben McGehee on the Advent Conspiracy Web site.

The East Whittier United Methodist Church in Whittier, Calif., decided to extend its conspiracy by placing a simple pitcher of water on the communion table each Sunday. The pitcher is moved to the baptismal font as the service progresses to remind members of the "extraordinary things God keeps doing through and with ordinary folks." Offerings go to the United Methodist Committee on Relief for clean water projects.

Thomas Riffey, student pastor at First United Methodist Church in Edmond, Okla., latched onto the idea of giving more without spending more and encouraged church youth to do the same. Using his "techie" talents, he created a slideshow of family memories as a Christmas present to family members.

Church youth followed his example by asking for and giving gifts that are more meaningful.

"Imagine the family's surprise when teens asked their parents to use gift money for something and take them all to dinner! It floored them!" Riffey said about presence as a present.

"One kid made popcorn balls and food for people he knew. Some spent a day making Christmas cookies with their parents. The church focused on 'Go! Spend time with your family in the same room!'" Riffey said.

"Our greatest challenge was shifting the mindset of those involved, that it was a worship experience and not a fund-raiser," Riffey blogged, "We encouraged people to focus on the good of giving time, and we're hoping the seeds take root and grow from there."

Instead of solely fund raising for a cause, they focused on giving of themselves and sacrifice, wholly considering Jesus in the way they lived, he said. The youth made a concerted effort to make their fund raising "an extension of worship" and their living.

'A doing church, not just a being church'
From Georgia to Oklahoma, from Pennsylvania to California, United Methodists, often led by young people, were conspiring to take back Advent in a world filled with the opposite message. According to a PBS "NewsHour" episode on "Young People Taking on More Debt,"  credit card debt among young adults has more than doubled over the last decade. The majority of youth graduate from high school without basic knowledge of personal finance.

At Harmony-Zelienople United Methodist Church outside Pittsburgh, another child conspired to break this cycle when he went home, broke open his piggy bank and brought all his money to the church for the Advent Conspiracy cause.

The Rev. John Jefferis focused sermons around the conspiracy. Many members chose to draw a family member's name from a hat. They bought one person a gift rather than all family members. The saved money went to mission. The church members also brainstormed traditions that wasted money, but weren't truly about Christ. They looked at giving time and themselves.

"There's content to our faith and there's action to our faith," Jefferis said, "The two cannot be separated." The Advent focus became "a healthy blending and movement of the church. We became a doing church, not just a being church. The two have to be balanced."

--Kelly Martini, freelance writer, Glen Mills, Pa.

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