Monday, December 22, 2014

Mary of Nazareth, King Henry VI, and a Hijacked Chapel

Mary of Nazareth, King Henry VI, and a Hijacked Chapel
Luke 1:26--55

The Beginning of Mary’s Story  
“He will be called great…Son of the Most High…inherit the throne of his father David…reign over the house of Jacob…his kingdom will have no end…holy offspring called the Son of God.”  Can you imagine receiving a birth announcement like that through the mail?  The wording itself would seem pretentious; coming from Mary it would seem ridiculous.  Mary is a young, unmarried, Jewish peasant girl living in an insignificant village in a backwater region of the Roman Empire.  Something is happening here that cannot be captured on your standard piece of stationary.   It would take a book to unpack this news.
Henry VI and His Hijacked Chapel
I spent Christmas Eve of 1987 in Cambridge, England.  At the center of that university town’s celebration of Advent and Christmas stands Kings College Chapel.  It is a massive stone structure.  On overcast days, its spires are buried in the clouds.  Its vaulted ceilings are chiseled like ivory.  The organ pipes from on high fill the space with sound as if they will drive out the air itself.   Its stone columns appear to be able to carry the weight of the whole creation and not collapse.

It took five kings to build the place.  Henry VI began construction of the chapel to honor Mary, that unmarried peasant girl from that village who got that awkward birth announcement.  Henry’s vision was that her chapel would be a place of prayer.  His inspiration was Mary’s song in verses 46 to 55 where she sings of her humble estate and wonders at the great reversal God is engineering:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:46-53)
Things did not turn out as Henry had planned.  Those builders who followed him got deterred and forgot all about the girl from Nazareth who was so taken by God’s regard for the unregarded of the world. 

A close inspection of the building tells the story.  Among the religious symbols and stained glass windows portraying the stories of faith are carvings of royal symbols and swords, knights on horses attired for battle.  Mary’s chapel is littered with the emblems of empire and conquest, war and wealth.  The fingerprints of patriarchy are unmistakable.  Henry’s chapel honoring a humble peasant girl became a monument to the kings who funded it, each king outdoing his predecessor.  The irony is palpable.  This chapel dedicated to a powerless teenage girl who courageously gave herself to God’s will became a shrine to the bloodletting and arrogance of monarchy.  The place came to honor Kings who held in contempt all that Mary stood for.

The irony goes even deeper, in 1987 the chapel was the possession of a male-dominated church.  That Christmas Eve all the clergy and choir were male.  For much of the history of the chapel, Mary would have been compelled to sit silently behind the organ screen bisecting the building.  I suspect that Mary would have been very self-conscious in her own chapel.  She likely would have been drawn to a simple parish church in the countryside with a thatched roof and roughly-hewn pews at the end of an unpaved road.
Why did God Choose a Young Woman Who Was So Easily Forgotten by the Powerful?  
 Mary was the type of person who finds no place in the history books; her voice is rarely heard.  She was a Hebrew, a race thought to be crude, untrustworthy, and clannish by the broader world.  As a young woman she would not even have had a voice in her own family about her own life; she was facing an arranged marriage.  She represents all those people whose lives are carried along by the whims of others, her days shaped by the convenience of the powerful.
At the word of the angel, Mary is troubled.  People like Mary spend a lot of their lives in apprehension.  They try to go through life unnoticed because they are usually on the losing end of most interactions; they walk quickly and don’t make eye contact.   Most of the news they receive is bad news.  The angel, however, cautions Mary not to be afraid; this is some good news for people like Mary.  The favor of God rests upon her, says the angel.  Then the other shoe drops:  “You are going to have a baby.”  Mary probably knew enough Jewish history to know that wearing the favor of God is not always easy.  It is often disruptive, inconvenient, and sometimes dangerous. It can come as a crown or as a cross; one never really knows.  Being an unwed peasant girl in a very traditional society will be no cakewalk for her.

What is Mary’s response to this disruptive piece of news?  “I am the Lord’s servant.  May it be to me as you have said,” she responds.  People like Mary are more prone to trust in God because they have found the world to be, for them, such an untrustworthy place. Her song of praise betrays what she believes about God:  God looks with favor on the lowly; scatters the proud; dethrones the powerful; lifts up the humble; fills the hungry; and sends the rich away hungry.  In a world that is stacked against people like Mary, she gives herself to a God who is clearly for her.  In this God, mercy and power are wed; justice and love join forces.  Mary cannot say no to a God like this.

Don’t Get the Wrong Idea
We might want to idealize Mary, put a halo on her head and wrap her in glowing garments.  In this way we can distance ourselves from her.  What if she were not so special?  What if she were a bit like the rest of us?  Then we would hear a challenge in her words: “I am the Lord’s servant.  May it be to me as you have said.”  If Mary is not a haloed saint, then we too are capable of saying things like that.  When Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, Elizabeth does not call Mary extraordinary or fantastic.  Rather Elizabeth calls her blessed.  Blessing is not something you earn or deserve; it is all gift all the time.  Mary was receiving a gift.

Maybe the real power of this story lies not in Mary’s extraordinary character but in her ordinariness.  This would mean that we are not so different from Mary.  God can work through us; Jesus can, in a way, still be born in us.  And it all comes as gift to those who can’t resist a God like this.  Who among us cannot do that?  Maybe Mary is not so special, but the God who gives to her this gift is the one who is so special.  Mary had the good sense to recognize this.

Back to the Chapel
I sat in that chapel full of contradictions on Christmas Eve.  I contemplated the two stories writ large there, Mary’s story being overwritten by the royal story.  The space was lit by candles masking the details of both stories.  Mary’s song of praise was read loud and clear.  Hers was the only voice in the place.  In that moment I realized the enduring quality of people like Mary.  The Kings who scribbled their vanity on the walls are mostly forgotten, their feats buried in history books somewhere.  Yet the song of this peasant girl, first heard only by God and Elizabeth, is still being sung.  It echoed off the walls that night:  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me as you have said.”  Christmas belongs to people like Mary, and someday her story will have the last triumphant word.

May Christ be born anew in us this Christmas.  May our stories come to sound a bit like her story.
Jim Kelsey
Advent 2014

Friday, December 12, 2014

Listening, Civil Order, and Grand Juries

Democracies characterized by freedom and order exist by voluntary compliance on the part of the citizenry.  It is a fragile arrangement, and this compliance must be continually monitored and maintained.  I lived in a country once where there was little reliance upon income taxes as a source of revenue for running the country.  Indeed, there were a myriad of laws on the books; but practically no one voluntarily obeyed them.   People did not trust the government, writing it off as corrupt and ineffectual.  Thus, many needs within the country went unmet in a way that undermined the quality of life in that place.

The widespread public outcry over two recent grand jury decisions concerning the death of two black men at the hands of the police has gotten me thinking about the importance of trust in a community.  Without overwhelming trust in our institutions and in those who serve on our behalf as public servants, we as a nation cannot be effectively governed and at the same time live as free people.  It is all really that fragile.

How do we as believers move ahead in a healthy way?  Jesus might provide for us a clue.  Jesus is going from Judea to Galilee, and he takes a shortcut through Samaria.  Most Jews would have gone around Samaria.  The Jews and the Samaritans did not like or trust one another and avoided each other.  The woman Jesus meets at the well inasmuch says that:  Jews do not associate with Samaritans (John 4:9).  Their isolated patterns of living led to antipathy and mistrust.  Jesus breaks through those barriers by actually spending some time with the woman.

Reforming the grand jury system when dealing with law enforcement and modifying policing policies is a bit beyond my area of expertise.  (But for the wellbeing of our national community, I think this needs to be quickly addressed.) I would, however, make a related observation.  At our Board of Mission meeting last Saturday, we had guided conversations about the recent deaths and grand jury decisions during our lunch.  Afterward we shared as a large group about our conversations.  I was sitting among a group of people who want good things for all Americans regardless of race.  They want America to be a place of fairness and opportunity, a place where everyone is valued and treated well.  As I sat there, I asked myself why then have issues of race been such a persistent struggle for us.  I think we are a bit like the Jews and the Samaritans; we live parallel but not mutually engaged lives.    

We are people of sympathy.  We acknowledge and care about the hardships of others.  We want to provide support and comfort, but we are untouched by the challenges faced by people who have been formed by a different set of experiences.  We need to work to become people of empathy. Empathy is born of exposure, of hearing the unmediated stories of others.  Empathy comes from living lives engaged with others, from being affected by what affects them.  Perhaps we stand at the threshold of empathy yet remain in the land of sympathy because the journey into empathy can be uncomfortable.

 I was recently at a meeting of ministerial leaders, and we were discussing racial diversity.  An African American man in his sixties told us of an experience he had as a 14 year old boy in St. Louis.  He was walking home one night, and a police officer stopped his car in the street and pulled his gun on the boy.  He took the young man to the police station and began to question him.  The officer demanded that the boy confess to something.  When he refused, the officer began to beat him with a rolled up phone book.  Still the young man refused.  So two officers drove him out to a vacant lot and told him to get out of the car.  He refused to get out; he thought to himself:  “If they shoot me, they will have to do it in the back of this cruiser and leave a bloody mess.”  He shared that, in that day, St. Louis police officers routinely shot young black men without any consequences; he knew he would likely not survive the night.  One officer pulled him out of the cruiser and onto the ground and told the other officer to drive away.  The officer pulled his gun and said “run.”  The young man knew if he ran he would be killed within a few steps.  So he confessed to everything he could think of and lived to tell this story.

When the man finished his story there was an awkward silence around the table, and then the prior conversation was resumed.  The man had just shared a harrowing story about nearly being killed before he was old enough to drive, and no one at the table seemed to acknowledge the gravity and terror of his experience.  He was pushing us from the land of sympathy into the land of empathy, but it was too uncomfortable a journey to make. The man who had nearly lost his life that night didn’t seem surprised that there was little interest in continuing the conversation.  When I read the news these days, I think of that man and the decades he has invested in building Christ’s church.  He hears the same news filtered through a different lens. 

The American Baptist Churches of New York State is a diverse family of churches.  We and our congregations have been shaped by a variety of experiences; we tell different stories around the table.  How can we create spaces where honest, and therefore sometimes uncomfortable, conversations can take place?  We need to be talking and listening and understanding and acting.  What I hear many of our fellow Americans saying through the public outcry these days is:  “We are finding it hard to breathe.”  We as Christians must hear that; we are caretakers of neighbors. Who is our neighbor?  Someone put that to Jesus and he told a story (Luke 10:30 to 37); it is for us at this moment a timely story.  Our obedience to the Gospel lies not with sympathy but with empathy, and empathy comes through casting our lots together in community.

We as a family of churches gathering each Sunday in the name of Christ are a great place to have those uncomfortable conversations that can lead to change in our nation.  Each and every one of us has the life-giving breath of God within us (Genesis 2:7).  When some of us are having are hard time breathing, the rest of us should start listening.


Jim Kelsey


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Fecundity and Transitions

I have always loved the word “fecund:” productive, generative, creative, flourishing, inventive, and imaginative.  The word calls to my mind the image of God’s original creation, that lush garden for which we all were created and someday will inhabit when God deems it is time.  Because God continues to create within our lives and congregations even as we await the consummation of the kingdom, there are fecund moments in our lives.  These are times when opportunity stands before us, when a choice can inaugurate some new and good thing in us, our family, or our congregation.
Loren Mead, church consultant and founder of the Alban Institute, was asked what he had learned in his 20 years at the helm of the institute.  At one point he commented: 
We learned that every congregation went through crises, and those crises were when they were open to change.  Probably the major crisis that happens to any congregation is the change of pastors.  Every time a pastor changes, a congregation has an opportunity to change.  We came to see it as a critical point in the life of a congregation.
We see the arrival of a new pastor as the inauguration point of change, but Mead observes that the biggest changes in a congregation have already happened by the time the new pastor arrives.  The congregation has already faced the loss of a previous pastor and has made some decisions about where they want to go.  In many ways, the congregation has cast their future before the new leader is on the scene, whether the congregation realizes it or not.  Many congregations see the interim period as something simply to get through before they can call a pastor.  They see it as wasted time, like the wait in an airport before the plane leaves.  They do not take advantage of the fecundity of the time.  Some of the most creative moments in a church’s life take place between pastors when the congregation must ask:  “Who are we without Pastor Jane?”  It can be a time of self-discovery and learning new skills.  Lay people take on new responsibilities and uncover gifts they did not know they had.
 If the period between pastors is well done, the congregation is ready to go in some new directions with their new pastor.  An interim pastor is someone who works with a church to accomplish a set of clear developmental tasks that will prepare the church for a new day and a new leader and a renewed vision of what God is calling them to do.
I hope your journey with your present pastor is long and the partnership you share rich.  If, however, you should ever find yourself in a time of pastoral transition, use it well.  God is always in the change, challenging us, equipping us, holding us.  Times of changes, all types of changes, can be fecund times when we trust ourselves and future to God and listen to what God has to teach us.
Jim Kelsey

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Why I Am an American Baptist Part Two:  A Missiology That Has Kept Me in the Family

As I shared in part 1, I have not always been an American Baptist.  My first experience of ministry shaped by a clear set of denominational values and practices came as a summer student missionary between my sophomore and junior years in college. I worked with a local Baptist church in Michigan, who was attempting to plant a church in a nearby community.  I was told not to contact any other church in that small community because they were not “Word churches.”  Only our brand of Baptists had it right.  It dawned on me that part of our work was to supplant ministry already being done in the area by other churches.  I felt uncomfortable; this was not a missiology that resonated with my developing (at that point two-year-old) faith.

Later, among American Baptists I found a missiology that was humble and recognized the value and authenticity in the work of people from other Christian groups born of different histories and places.  I delighted in the way American Baptists celebrated the particular cultures and practices of the places where they minister, be it in “Little Italy” of South Philadelphia or the villages of Congo or the cities of Europe.  American Baptists, when we are at our best, have respect for the diversity of the human family and, in particular, respect for the ongoing ministries of believers who have lived there faithfully long before we arrived.

My church in Ohio went on a mission trip to Mexico, where we worked with ABC-USA missionary Tim Long at the seminary in Mexicali.  I was impressed by the gentle but determined way Tim taught us to respect the ways of the locals and to follow their lead.  He made it clear that local believers knew more about ministry (and construction) in that place than we ever would.  We realized that we were guests in someone else’s homeland; we had come to partner with an ongoing ministry.

The following year my church went on a mission trip to an ABC-USA Christian Community Center in Hamtramck, Michigan, run by former ABC-USA Home Missionary Sharon Buttry.  Forty-one percent of the residents in that community were foreign born, coming from the Middle East, south Asia, and southeastern Europe.  The collection of languages being spoken and the variety of restaurants that lined the streets were mesmerizing.  Sharon’s sensitivity to the diversity of the community and her appreciation of the cultures represented in the neighborhood was obvious.  We realized that we were guests in someone else’s community; we had come to partner with an ongoing ministry.

My wife Debbie and I spent 10 years as American Baptist missionaries in Europe.  We tried to model what we had learned from other American Baptists.  ABC-USA missionaries are almost always invited in by national partners to come alongside them and strengthen their ongoing ministries.  The national partner sets the agenda and determines the priorities.  There is respect for their traditions, history and values.  American Baptists recognize that the best wisdom for ministry in a particular place is found among those folks who have been ministering there for generations.  They work with a spirit of humility, seeking to be helpful where they can, and leaving as small a footprint as possible.

Too often North American missionaries enter a place of ministry with the mindset of a benefactor who already knows what people need and distributes benefits as a patron handing out Christmas hams.  In some cases we met missionaries who worked in the land as a type of occupying force, with little regard for what the local believers were doing or thought was important.  In some instances, they refused to work with any national group and even tried to stay “under the radar” of local Christian groups.  Some had a subversive mentality; unfortunately, they were subverting the efforts of local Christians who had worked and sacrificed for decades in that place.

American Baptists, whether in a foreign land, an American city, or their own community, have a listening, appreciating cooperative missiology leavened with humility.  This is why I have remained an American Baptist and always will be.  We have always been a people on mission.  I like the way we travel through the world.

Why are you an American Baptist?  Share your journey with me, and I’ll share it with the larger Regional family.  Email me at

Might I suggest that you make November American Baptist Identity Month in your church?  You can find resources to assist you at and brief video clips at  I suggest the following videos:  Jimmy Carter talks about American Baptists’ work on behalf of the equality of women in church and society; Suzan Johnson Cook speaks to the importance of preparing the next generation of church leaders; Tony Compolo reminds us of American Baptists pioneering and ongoing work in cross-cultural missions; and Luis Cortes Jr. raises up the biblical mandate for practical ministry in the community.  Let us celebrate our American Baptist family next month (or any other month you choose.)
Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister                                                                                                                                               



Friday, October 10, 2014

Why I Am American Baptist: Part 1

How did I become an American Baptist?  By the providence of God.  That is the short answer; there is a longer one, and here it is:

My family attended a different brand of Baptist church while I was growing up.  I learned about the love of God in Christ among those people.  I memorized the books of the Bible; I still have the red-letter King James Version Bible I received upon the mastering of that list.  It was a good and nurturing place for me.  Perhaps for others, everything they needed for Christian formation was present; but, even as a child, I sensed something that I needed was missing.

The Seeds of an American Baptist:  Integrity Between Life and Faith
One hot summer night an evangelist came to our church and preached about the evils of television and asserted that all houses should be purged of this menace.  People all over were saying “amen.”  Yet I knew that nearly everyone in this suburban middle-class church owned a television and suspected that all those televisions would remain in those homes long after this evangelist had moved on to another city.  As a child, I found this confusing.  I wondered about the connection between what was said in church and how folks lived their lives.

Several years later, in the early morning hours of September 1, 1966, a thirty-nine-year-old African American named Lester Mitchell was shot to death while sweeping the sidewalk in front of his house.  The shotgun blast that killed him came from a pickup truck with three white men in it.  Mitchell lived in west Dayton, a community that was 96% black at the time and mired in poverty.  The civil unrest that gripped the city following this killing filled the news.  I remember the paranoia that spread throughout the metropolitan region.  I assumed that this would be the main topic of discussion at church on Sunday.  Yet not a word was said; it was as if none of this were happening.  Again, I wondered about the connection between what happens in church and what happens in the broader world.

I was attracted to American Baptist life because, when we are at our best, we make connections between what we say we believe and what is happening in the world around us.  In other words, there is an organic link between religious conviction and discipleship when we are honoring our denominational family values.  American Baptists believe that being used by God to make whole what is broken in our society and in our lives is central to our calling as disciples.  In our denominational brochure 10 Facts You Should Know About American Baptists it says:  “American Baptists have been called to be witnesses for justice and wholeness within a broken society.’  This value of integrity between the faith we talk about in church and the lives we lead in the broader community attracted me to the American Baptist family.

This particular family value can create tensions within our ABC family because we do not always agree on how to apply the teachings of scripture to some of the events around us, but we do agree that making that application is very important.  We agree that there should be room within our churches and broader religious community to talk about things in an appreciative and listening way.  Each of us must then exercise our responsibility under God to form our convictions and live them out in the broader world.    In 10 Facts You Should Know About American Baptists it says that we have “rejected creeds or statements that might compromise each believer’s obligation to interpret scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and within the community of faith.”  In our document We Are American Baptists, it says that we are a redeemed people “who honor the priesthood of all believers; and who live their faith as visible saints.” We work to balance the twin values of our freedom in Christ and our responsibility as disciples, relying upon the Holy Spirit to guide us.  This is one of our principle strengths as American Baptists.

The Seeds Sprout and Take Form:  Humility of Spirit
I became a committed follower of Jesus Christ during my freshman year in college and immediately became involved in the campus Baptist Student Union.  These fellow students became my first formative community of faith.  Although we were the “Baptist Student Union,” we Baptists were in the minority.  There were Methodists, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Christian Missionary Alliance, and even a lone Episcopalian.    Here I learned that the Christian church was much larger than my own Baptist family.  We were very earnest in our theological debates, arguing the minutia of the faith with great stamina; the word sophomoric comes to mind.  I found that I could learn from people shaped by different traditions and experiences.  This helped me to better understand and commit to my own convictions and practices.  (We Baptists did, however, forcibly immerse the Methodists and Presbyterians in the Little Miami River on our annual canoe trip by tipping their canoes; but being ecumenically inclined Baptists, we helped them get the water out afterward.)

I was attracted to the ABC family because American Baptists realize that we are not the only ones out there doing good ministry in the name of Christ.  American Baptists have the humility to appreciate the value of what others are doing and learn some valuable things from it.  We are willing to work with others when we find affinities of purpose and opportunity.  American Baptists, when we are to our best, see the magnificence and wonder of God’s character in the breadth of God’s family and the many ways that God works through the various limbs of Christ’s body.  It was the humility of American Baptists that drew me to them.

Diversity:  Celebration of Our Creator God
As I lived in different places and came to know a variety of people, I came to appreciate the wonderful diversity of the human family.  American Baptists are the most racially and ethnically diverse Protestant denomination in the country, and we celebrate this diversity as a strength and do not simply accommodate it as a problem.  This gives us a richness and a resiliency that is not found anywhere else.  For me, this cinched the deal.

Decision Time:  American Baptist by Choice
I deliberately chose to become an American Baptist in 1990 and went to my first ABC pastorate in Philadelphia in 1992.  In my next article I will talk about the missiology of American Baptists and how that has kept me in the family.  Why are you an American Baptist by choice?  Share your journey with me, and I’ll share it with the larger Regional family.  Email me at

Might I suggest that you make November American Baptist Identity Month in your church?  You can find resources to assist you at and brief video clips at  I suggest the following videos:  Jimmy Carter talks about American Baptists’ work on behalf of the equality of women in church and society; Suzan Johnson Cook speaks to the importance of preparing the next generation of church leaders; Tony Compolo reminds us of American Baptists pioneering and ongoing work in cross-cultural missions; and Luis Cortes Jr. raises up the biblical mandate for practical ministry in the community.  Let us celebrate our American Baptist family next month (or any other month you choose.)

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister ABC/NYS

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

An Untucked Shirt and the Fear of a Father

They did not know I was there.  I stood in the backroom that housed the copier before the worship service.  The door to the outer office swung open, and a father and his 14-year-old son came in.  The father began to angrily castigate his son because the boy’s shirt was untucked.  The father finished his tirade with:  “You are not some dude standing on the street corner looking for trouble.  Now tuck in that shirt and never go out of the house like this again.”  The father walked out leaving his son behind.  The son tucked in his shirt and left.  I had witnessed a private moment between a father and his son, and I was surprised at the intensity of the father’s words. 

I knew this father and son well.  The father was a retired art teacher.  He was, himself, an accomplished artist and had established the first African-American-owned art gallery in the city of Philadelphia.  He was a soft-spoken man, with a gentle and reflective spirit.  He had appreciative eyes that took in the world around him with curiosity and compassion.

His son attended a prestigious private school and was a dedicated musician.  He spent most of his summer at music camp and math camp.  Although he had a reticence around adults typical of boys his age, he was invariably polite, respectful and well spoken.  He and his younger brother always wore a white shirt and tie on Sunday.

I thought about what I had witnessed and tried to make some sense of the father’s out-of-character angry reaction to his son’s untucked shirt.  It just did not add up.

Not long after that, my own 2-year-old son ran into the street in front of our row house.  I followed him into the street and abruptly snatched him up.  I sternly reprimanded him and told him how dangerous that was and that he must never do it again.  I then hauled him inside; play time was over.

A neighbor witnessing this scene might have thought that I was angry, but I was not.  I was scared.  My son could have been injured or killed.  City streets are dangerous places for 2 year olds.  That father who was so upset about his son’s shirt was not angry either; he too was scared.  He knew city streets could be dangerous places for young black men.

As I follow the news stories coming out of Ferguson, Missouri and reflect upon the broader issues raised through them, I think about that father and his son with the untucked shirt.  I heard the father died several years ago.  I don’t know where the son is these days.  I hope he is all right.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister

Monday, August 11, 2014

I'm a __________________.

The woman had just returned from a trip to Russia where she discovered some Jewish lineage in her distant forbearers.  At our clergy group meeting that week she effusively declared:  “I’m a white, black brown, Muslim, Jewish, Christian woman.”  (I’m not sure why she ignored the large menu of Eastern religions.)  I suggested to her that this was not possible, that she had to choose.  I pointed out that being all these things at once, she could not be any one of them with any depth. She countered that her spirit had grown too big for traditional categories of identity.  I lost interest in the conversation at that point but did suggest to her that I had some elderly black women in my church who had come North fleeing Jim Crow decades ago who would likely be glad to meet with her to assess the authenticity of her experience as a black woman.  I was not sure what part of growing up white in a wealthy neighborhood in Princeton, New Jersey; four years at Vassar; and then ten years as pastor of a suburban church in Montgomery county, the 51st wealthiest county in the nation, qualified her to such an all-encompassing appreciation of the human experience.  But as I said, I had lost interest in the conversation.

Having seen a great deal more of the world in the intervening twenty years, I am even more convinced today than I was then that she was incapable of wearing such a broad identity.  You cannot be all things to all people.  If you try, you quickly become very little to anyone.  One might cite the Apostle Paul to demonstrate the flaw in my thinking:
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings. (1 Cor. 9:19-13).
Paul writes “I became as a Jew…as a one under the law.”  I do not think that Paul is saying that he is (any longer) any of these things but that he can successfully relate to and find affinities with these various types of people.  I think he is able to do so because he knows who he is in a starkly particular way and is entirely unapologetic about it.  Someone who writes  “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2)” and  “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry in order to make my own people jealous, and thus save some of them (Romans 11:13-14)” is a person with a strong sense of identity.  Paul knows who he is and what he is living for; this gives him the freedom to engage people who do not share this same identity.  He is not trying to be all things to all people; rather he is demonstrating the power and confidence that comes from knowing who he is in Christ and what God has called him to do.

Why do we sometimes feel we need to be all things to all people?  We sometimes confuse a commitment to pluralism with a neutrality born of the desire to iron over any tension generated by conviction.  As a nation we are committed to pluralism; it is one of the core values of our society.   Pluralism, however, does not relativize all conviction and smother all passionate commitment; it does not mean a homogenization of our beliefs.   Pluralism says that we deliberately make room for passionate commitment to highly particularized convictions and their expression in our living.  Pluralism does not mean we apologize for our faith; it means we are free to practice it with vigor.  Baptists have long maintained that only in an atmosphere of freedom—where we can choose otherwise—can we authentically choose for Christian faith.  The loving father in the parable in Luke chapter 15 knew that for his younger son to truly choose obedience and belonging, he had to be free to choose otherwise.  American Baptists have worked hard to guard this freedom that is so essential to freely chosen authentic faith.   I am unapologetically Christian; more than that, I am unashamedly Baptist.  Pluralism means that I can openly revel in this identity among others who are of a different tribe. 

By choosing to be a Christian of the Baptist persuasion, I am choosing against a multitude of other identities.  There are many things I cannot be; one identity excludes others.  A piece of knowing who we are is knowing who we are not.  We cannot, with authenticity, be all things to all people.

Pluralism provides space for each of us to passionately and unapologetically declare who we are and what matters to us.  It does not necessitate that we apologize for our beliefs or suppress our convictions.  I am
  • a follower of Jesus Christ, being day by day transformed by the Spirit into his image,
  • shaped for better or for worse by where and when I was born and those people who have shaped my life,
  • called to love to the point of sacrifice those whom God loves,
  • being slowly but surely prepared for the day when God’s reign will come in its fullness. 

When I claim this identity in an immediate and fresh way, I am better equipped to relate to and find affinities with those who are not quite like me.  A strong sense of identity does not cut us off from others, rather it frees us to engage and even love others who are unlike us.  The Apostle Paul knew unapologetically who he was and who he was not; thus he was able to build bridges to everyone he met.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister

Friday, August 1, 2014

Remembering and Planning

It was a week of looking back and giving thanks and a week of looking forward and believing.  Debbie, Ben, and I — along with some other New York American Baptists—attended the International Ministries/ABC-USA World Mission Conference at Green Lake Conference Center last week.  It was the 200th anniversary of American Baptist Mission efforts around the world. Over a thousand people from across the country and around the world joined to celebrate the past, present and future, seeking the Lord's leading for our third century of mission together.

Although the conference was a 200th anniversary celebration, the theme for the week was “Rise to the Challenge.”  Our 200-year heritage of faithful ministry challenges us to do our part in our day to continue this tradition in new and creative ways, adapting to a changing world.  When Debbie and I were in missionary orientation, we heard stories of missionaries traveling months to their field of service, arriving in a land that they knew little about, and going decades without seeing their family in the States, connected only with irregular letters.  We flew to our field of service in less than a day, had been in close contact with the national partner with whom we would be working, and had seen (via email) pictures of the house where we would be living.  In so many ways, missionary service has changed in the last 200 years.  Yet the values that shape ministry have remained much the same. 

One core value that is still honored by International Ministries is respect for the national partners with whom our missionaries work.  This was evidenced by the many leaders from other countries present at the mission conference.  It was a great joy to me to be able to spend time with several of the Vietnamese pastors with whom I had worked in Vietnam and to hear how they are advancing the work of Christ in their country. As I served on the mission field, I was surprised by the number of North American missionaries who served for years in a country without any connection to or even a conversation with those faithful indigenous Christians who had been living and serving their whole life in that place.  Building competencies and sustainability among local leaders and congregations is a key piece of what American Baptist missionaries do.  That is why they are the most sought-after North American missionaries.

If you or your congregation are not currently supporting an American Baptist missionary, I encourage you to go to and find a particular missionary whose ministry or place of service is of interest to you and begin to pray for them, write to them, and support them financially.  If you want a taste of mission service yourself and to make a good connection with two of our finest ABC/USA missionaries, check out our ABC/NYS mission trip to Nicaragua in April 2015 at If you cannot go in 2015, you can still support the trip by making a contribution to the cost of materials by going to the above link and following the instructions at: “To support the Water Purification Project:

The strength of our international mission effort is tied to the vitality of our ABC New York congregations.  The Region works to strengthen the lives of these congregations.  All of us in partnership with one another bring greater glory to God’s kingdom.  Thank you for your participation in this important work.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Why Not Just Send Money?

I was not big fan of mission trips. I saw many of them as “mission tourism,” designed more for the purpose of giving North Americans an exotic experience that had the additional benefit of pumping up their sense of Christian commitment.  I encouraged my church members to send money to support missionaries who lived on the field or to fund projects in faraway places. 

In the summer of 1998 I went to lunch at a fellow pastor’s house in Ohio, where I met Ketly and Vital Pierre, International Ministries-ABC/USA missionaries to Nicaragua.  I watched a video about their ministry and was captured by a sudden sense of calling.  I thought to myself:  My church needs to go on a mission trip; this would be a small thing for us to do.  I shared this with my mission committee.  (Actually I said that I was going on a mission trip; if anyone from the church wanted to go with me, they were welcome to do so.)  The following Spring twenty-three of us went to Mexicali to work with Tim and Patty Long at the Dios con Nostros Seminario.  We were all changed by the experience.  Four years after the trip, Debbie and I, along with our two sons, were on our way to Europe to begin service as International Ministries-ABC/USA missionaries. One of the teenagers from the Mexicali trip went on to serve overseas with Campus Crusade for two years after college.  The effects of that trip continued to ripple through the lives of those who went. 

During the trip, I was struck by how glad the Mexican pastors and students seemed to be that we had come.  Simply sending money would not have been the same for them.   I had not expected that.

Fast forward 9 years:  Debbie and I are now in Italy working with Nigerian and Ghanaian immigrants and are receiving mission groups wanting to participate in our ministry.  The first group that came to Italy was from my first church in Philadelphia.  Again, I am wondering:  Is this a good use of their resources and our time?  Many of our congregations and the people in them were in need of many things.  The Italian Baptists, themselves, had profound financial needs.  I struggled with the cost of fifteen North Americans coming to Italy for 10 days to work with people and churches who could not afford some of the most basic things of life.

I was amazed at the effect this mission team had on our people and their churches.  The congregations were delighted to think that people would travel to Italy to work with them.  They were mightily encouraged and received a tremendous blessing from these temporary visitors.  Each time a group came, the effect was the same.  The teams preached, sponsored conferences, and counseled with individuals; but the most important ministry they practiced was the gift of their presence.  The North Americans who participated in those trips were changed, I am sure; but the people they met in Italy and the churches in which they worshiped were changed as well, of this I am sure.  I no longer questioned the value of mission trips.

8 in 10 Nicaraguans lack access to clean water
Fast forward again to April 2015:   New York Baptists will go to Nicaragua to work with a rural village, setting up biosand water filters.  These filters have been incredibly effective in saving the lives of babies and children and improving the overall health of communities.  Eight out of ten Nicaraguans lack access to clean water. This raises the infant mortality rate and damages the health of everyone, particularly in a country where five out of ten people lack access to health care.  Our trip will be led by Dr. Roberto Martinez, a Nicaraguan physician who works with the AMOS Ministry (A Ministry of Sharing) founded by Drs. Laura and David Parajon, International Ministries-ABC/USA missionaries in Nicaragua.  Dr. Martinez is currently working on a Masters in Public Health in Syracuse. 

How can you participate?  
  • One, you can pray about going on the trip.  The trip in April 2015 will be the first of a three-year partnership with the Parajons’ ministry.  If not next year, perhaps you could go on one of the following two trips.  
  • Two, you can make a contribution to offset the $6000 of material costs involved in setting up these filters; this will reduce the per-person cost for those who do go.  Or, you could provide sponsorship assistance to someone who is able to go on the trip.  
  • Three, you can approach someone you know who might be interested in going and invite them to consider participating.  
  • Four, you can pray for the safety and health of those who will be going.  You can pray that transformative relationships will be established between us and our brothers and sisters in Nicaragua.  You can pray for Drs. Laura and David Paragon and Dr. Martinez as they minister through the AMOS ministry.

You can find more information on the ABC/NYS website at   Dr. Martinez and I are glad to come to your church or Association or any other gathering to share about this opportunity to grow in our faith and serve our Lord.  You can call me at (315)469-4236 (ext. 14) or email me at

If you would like to make a financial contribution to the trip, please send it to the Region office or give online and clearly mark your contribution “Waters of Blessing Trip.”

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister, American Baptist Churches of New York State

We are agents of change in our communities.  If we have hope we can save some lives.  If we have no hope, we will fall frustrated.  We choose the walk of hope.
-Juan de Dios Blanden

Health Promoter

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Baying at the Moon

A fellow pastor told my wife about a cartoon from The New Yorker.  I can’t reproduce the cartoon here because that would cost money, but you can find it here.  A pack of wolves is standing on a cliff baying at the moon.  One wolf says:  “My question is:  Are we making an impact?”  I suspect this question hung behind John the Baptist’s question to Jesus in Matthew 11.  John is languishing in prison because he had spoken truth to power; John told Herod that he should not “have” his brother’s wife.  It appears John thought that Jesus was bringing the final chapter of the Kingdom of God on his coattails; this was going to be the end of the powers and principalities that Paul later will write about.  Now John sits in a jail cell.  Herod still dines lavishly in his palace, and Jesus does not appear to have Caesar, Herod, or even the Sadducees on the ropes.  Small farmers still lose their land under crushing debt. The Romans still tax the life out of the peasantry.  Cynical and self-serving religious leaders still manipulate the faithful for power and gain.   Perhaps John is asking himself:  Have I just been baying at the moon?  He has paid a great price for his faithfulness, and perhaps he senses that he soon will pay with his very head.  That kind of thing can make one weigh the benefit and costs of a chosen course of action.
John sends his disciples to Jesus to find out if he was mistaken; the disciples give voice to John’s doubts. They ask:  “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus does not answer their question directly, rather he replies: 
Go back and tell John what you hear and see:  The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf they hear, the dead are raised, and the Good News is preached to the poor.
If you know your Hebrew Bible, that means “no, you need not look for someone else.”  The coming of the Kingdom looks different than what John expected.  He cannot see the deep undercurrents moving across the land as Jesus teaches and heals. He cannot know of the passion and the resurrection to come.   He has no way of imagining that Pentecost celebration in Jerusalem.  I suspect, however, that he is satisfied when his disciples bring back their report.  I suspect he dies in peace, knowing that he was not just baying at the moon when he announced:
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."  This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.' "
John was making an impact.

Sometimes we wonder whether we are making an impact or are simply baying at the moon.  Periodically people would come by my church in Philadelphia with all sorts of problems, some of them generations in the making.  Often folks seemed to believe that their problems could be solved with $50 cash; I knew they could not.  A situation that took 20 years or more to develop could not be solved in an afternoon.  Sometimes I felt as if I were just baying at the moon, leaving my community untouched, unchanged, unredeemed.

One day a young man knocked on the thick wooden door of the church.  The thud echoed through the empty halls.  I answered that thud as I always did.  The young man at the door extended to me his hand; it was red and swollen—deeply infected.  He was in obvious pain.  I offered to take him to the emergency room.  He refused, saying he had no money to pay.  I assured him that they had to see him whether he could pay or not; it was the law.  He replied that they would send him bill after bill after bill, and he would never be able to pay it.  It was 4:30 on a Friday afternoon.  I began looking for a clinic who would see him for free.  I found one 12 blocks away.  They closed at 5:00, and he had to be through their door before they closed.  We raced to the clinic, and I pulled up on the sidewalk to deposit him at the door.  It was 4:55.  He went inside, and I never saw him again.  Not long after that I moved to Ohio.

Four years later I was back at the church, and a woman there came up to me and said that some guy was by the other day looking for me.  He asked about that bald white guy who used to be the pastor.  She told him I had moved away.  He replied: 

Well if you ever see him tell him this.  I came here one day with a messed up hand.  He helped me find a doctor—took me there himself.  Tell him that I’m off drugs; my mother is off drugs too.  I’m married, got two sons; and I’m a deacon in a church now.  I got right with God, and God got my life right.
Like John, we have no idea what God is doing through us and around us and, sometimes, in spite of us.  We cannot know the things we set in motion through acts of faithfulness.  We are not just baying at the moon, whether we ever know it or not.  So keep howling and trust the rest to God.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Hearing the Voice of Our Mothers and Other Women

This coming Sunday is Mother’s Day, a day when we honor and give thanks for our mothers.  All of us, however, have been shaped by multiple women.  Perhaps our mothers were the principal caregivers when we were growing up, but many feminine hands have shaped us, encouraged us, and corrected us.  This is a day when we can give thanks for all the faithful women who in one way or another have “mothered us” and remember how they enriched and brighten our days.

One of my enduring memories of my own mother comes from a family fishing trip when I was a child.  It is 6:00 a.m. on rainy day in mid-November; we are drifting along the shore of a Tennessee lake.  My 2 brothers, my father, and I are casting minnows under the rock ledges at the water’s edge hoping to entice a large bass to strike.  My mother is sitting in the front of the boat in a heavy coat with a plastic sheet pull over her head.  She is reading a copy of “The Ladies Home Journal,” carefully turning the pages with gloved hands.  We are staying in a cabin at a fishing camp where we cook all our own meals and must clean the place before we leave. 

We made this trip twice a year.  It never occurred to me that this was not my mother’s vacation of choice.  In retrospect, I suspect it was not.  In the 1980’s, she went back to work as a nurse and began to earn money. She and my dad started going on cruises about that time.  Apparently she found her voice concerning vacations.

Women have been finding their voice in Baptist churches for centuries.  In 17th century England, when women were allowed no leadership role in the Church of England, Baptists were part of the nonconformist movement, which permitted women to preach and engage in ministry.  In 1846, Ruth Bixby was licensed to preach in Iowa by her Baptist church.  The first extant record of a woman’s ordination in America dates from 1869 when a Rev. A. Gerry was ordained among northern Free Will Baptists.  Rev. Susan Elizabeth Cilley Griffin (1851-1926), of the Elmira Heights Baptist Church, NY State, was the first woman whose ordination was nationally recognized by our denomination (called the Northern Baptist Convention, at that time).

Rev. Edith Hill is an excellent example of a woman finding her voice among her fellow Baptists.  On Friday April 13, 1894, at 8:00 pm, the ordination council for Miss Hill convened.  The church was full to capacity.  Miss Hill recited eighty-five scriptures affirming the place of women in the public work of the church.  The Rev. Scott preached a sermon on Psalm 68:11 and Galatians 3:28.  Then Miss Hill was asked about her Christian experience, her call to public ministry, her experiences in pursuing that calling, and her theology.  The ordination council was quite impressed.  They conferred and then recommended that the (Eden) First Baptist Church of Pittsburg, KS, delegate her to the work of an evangelist and, in the absence of an ordained person, that she be authorized to administer the ordinances. Upon hearing this recommendation, Miss Hill replied:  “I hope that the church will remember that the condition under which I [accept] the pastorate is that I shall be regularly ordained as a minister of the Gospel.”  This was said quietly and distinctly amid the profound and sympathetic silence of the congregation.  The mover of the motion explained that he had misunderstood and withdrew his motion.  Since the crowd that day was in no mood for the compromising of what they felt to be the leadership of the Holy Spirit, the committee conferred a second time and recommended full ordination.  Rev. Scott offered the prayer of ordination, a Brother Martin gave the charge to the candidate, and Rev. Hill offered the benediction.  They probably ate potato salad and chicken after that.  In that crowded church, the voice of Rev. Hill was heard.  Rev. Hill spent three years as the pastor of [Eden] First Baptist Church of Pittsburg, where she immersed 170 men and women.

Quietly and distinctly, boldly and faithfully, women have been speaking words of grace, challenge and healing in our lives and our churches.  As mothers, teachers, neighbors, friends, and pastors, they have enriched our lives and our congregations by exercising their gifts and pursuing their diverse callings under God.  This is one reason why I am proud to be an American Baptist.  The full partnership of women in our churches is not universally affirmed, but it is characteristic of our ABC/USA family.  This is a character trait that sets us apart from many other Baptist groups.  As we worship on this Mother’s Day and give thanks for the women who have nurtured our spirits, we can have a sense of pride that the voices of women have been and are being heard in our churches.  We can give thanks for courageous women like Rev. Edith Hill who would not permit their voices to be muted.

Jim Kelsey
Executive Minister