Sunday, June 8, 2014

Midtown Summit I

("My View" article in Rockford Register Star on June 8, 2014)
I miss Bill Robertson, the former Fire Chief and member of Zion Lutheran Church. He passed away in 2013. Bill was a former Episcopalian that joined Zion. He was a Lutheropalian as one Pastor described someone who was both Lutheran and Episcopalian. Bill encouraged me to become a Police and Fire Chaplain and to be involved in the community. He even gave me a copy of the “Book of Common Prayer” during the three years I knew him. Bill knew people of faith and people of service needed to work together. He bridged relationships in faith and work throughout the community.
Bill was the first person when I came to Rockford in 2010 to talk about the “silo” mentality of organizations and institutions. It is easy for groups of people to just work within their circle and not reach out to others.  We usually don’t want to be stretched because we all only have so much time and energy. Yet Bill stretched into retirement by becoming a city alderman, a Zion Church Council member and active member of Zion.
A month before Bill passed away in February 2013, the Zion Partners began a journey when we had a Zion Partners Summit in January of 2013. We had over 30 board members from the four agencies Zion created gathering together. The Zion Partners are made up of Zion Church, Patriots’ Gateway, Zion Development and Zion Outeach. We were stretched to work together more intentionally. We began to meet and continue to meet monthly at Morning Glory on Seventh Street for dialogue and discussion around the common values of faith formation, education, recreation and health, permanent supportive housing, jobs and supportive relationships in the Midtown neighborhoods 61104 region.
This is why we will be gathering on Wednesday June 11th from 10:00-11:30am at Katie’s Cup for a Midtown Summit to hear Paul Logli of the United Way talk about their efforts in the future in the Midtown Neighborhoods of the 61104 zip code. This might be a stretch but now is the time for us to be stretched in recommitting ourselves to our community.
When people think of Midtown they think of just Seventh Street from State Street to about Eighth Avenue. Well, that’s if people know of the Midtown Business District at all. The Midtown Neighborhood Region of 61104 stretches from State Street to Harrison Avenue, from 20th street to the river. 
This Midtown Summit will be the first conversation that seeks to build relationships in the Midtown Neighborhoods. It is my hope that those who live, work and serve in the 61104 area that are either residents, business, churches, non-profits, civil servants and community leaders would gather for the sake of transforming our community. I don’t have a plan but I have hope that we can become more intentional and strategic about working together for our midtown neighborhood region. Please email me at if you would like to join us on June 11, 2014 from 10:00am-11:30a at Katie’s Cup or if you want to be added to an email list for future planning.
So here is to Bill Robertson, a community servant and Luteropalian whose silhouette (sounds like silo) can still be seen in the reflection of the many who are seeking to transform the Midtown neighborhoods of 61104!

            Peace! Rev. Dr. Michael E. Thomas

Sunday, November 17, 2013

"Zion transforms Midtown neighborhood"

Here is the article I wrote for the Rockford Register Star on November 17, 2013

To transform is to change from one thing to another. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters of Rockford, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” These words from the book of Romans remind us of the power of God’s transformation takes place individually and communally. The Greek word for transform is “metamorphoo” which means to change from one thing to another.
In 1971, the Woodruff Express was going to change the face of Midtown. A highway was going to come into downtown and Zion Lutheran Church was in the way. Zion decided to purchase eight acres of land near the northeast corner of Spring Creek and Mulford place. The “Woodruff Express” highway never happened. When the highway was dropped, the church decided to sell the land. The 1983 vote was 80% to sell and stay in Midtown and 20% to keep it and move. They sold that property in the northeast part of town and decided they were going to be in the city to “discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
That discernment meant transformation for Zion. I’ve been the Senior Pastor at Zion Church in Midtown for four years and I’ve seen many Midtown miracles that have transformed the neighborhood near Fifth, Sixth and Seventh streets. We recalled those changes in 2013 and the many people who made it happen. This past year we rededicated the youth center as the “Bitner Youth Center” in honor of Pastor Denver and Pamela Bitner’s years of ministry. The Youth Center was the fourth major building change at Zion and built with funds from the Spring Creek land sale.
We recall how the church helped change the neighborhood with the creation of three 501(c)3 non-profits. They created the Patriots’ Gateway Center in 1995 to promote recreation in the neighborhood, developing an inner city Golf Center and an excellent Patriots’ Boxing program on Seventh Street. We remember how the church leaders started Zion Development in 1982 to promote jobs, creating permanent supportive housing at the Grand and Longwood Apartments; then the Lantow lofts and Katie’s Cup in 2009. We celebrate that the church started Zion Outreach in 2005 to support a Food Pantry, Tutoring, and the Buddy House Community Garden Ministry at Blackhawk apartments. The church and these non-profits have helped change the 61104 Midtown neighborhood, along with many businesses and social sector groups. Yet our hearts and minds need renewal.
Therefore, these Zion Partners have been meeting throughout 2013 to recommit ourselves to working together, signing the Zion Partners Memorandum of Understanding at worship on November 10th.  We have recommitted ourselves to transforming our 61104 Midtown neighborhood with others based on the core values of faith, housing, health, recreation, education, meaningful work, and supportive social relationships.
            “At this good, acceptable and perfect time”, Rockford is engaging in the “Transform Rockford” process. Barbara Lundblad in the book Transforming the Stone reminds us, “For people of faith, transformation doesn’t happen: it is a gift from God”.  Let us place our gifts on the rock of change and pray that transformation would come to us like the women who once stood in front of a great unmovable rock and heard the angelic words “Do not be afraid”.

Peace! Rev. Dr. Michael E. Thomas

Friday, March 22, 2013

John 15:1-15 - "The Barbara Branch"

        "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing."

         Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. Hard wood stuck in the ground with Christ nailed, pierced and grafted into and onto it. We have been grafted into that vine... we are branches reaching back all the way from creation. Reaching back and into the future, we have been pruned along the way through others and by others.
         So thanks be to God for grafting and for those who have pruned us in faith. One such person I think of this year is Rev. Dr. Barbara Jurgensen. Pastor Barbara served First Evangelical Lutheran Church of Logan Square on the northwest side of Chicago from 1977 to 1984. Barbara served my home church in her only role as a parish pastor in inner-city Chicago for those six years. Barbara passed away last summer, 2012. This Holy Week she has been pressed into eternal vineyard service, her life poured out upon so many. 
         I received an email from her son about her death. I was saddened and have wanted to write about her role in my life.  She came to First Lutheran Church as one of the first female pastors in the ALC in 1978. She served First in Chicago at such a crucial time for me. I was just starting seventh grade and she led our confirmation class on Wednesday afternoon in the upstairs parsonage main room with five other teens. We read scripture, the catechism, and made taffy apples. She was able to get people from the church to pay for me to go to Bible Camp; first at Green Wing Bible Camp in 1978 and 1979 near Amboy, Illinois and then to Lutherdale Bible Camp north of Elkhorn, WI in 1980 and 1981.
          Barbara’s timely influence in my life was amazing. She pressed me into service to take on leadership of our Luther League, grafting me as a youth representative to Church Council and to work as a volunteer in 1982 at Lutherdale on the maintenance staff. That first of many summers away from Chicago opened my eyes to a new world. It was around the campfires of Lutherdale I felt the "pruning of the Holy Spirit", setting me free from the hold of sin and fear, calling me to go to college, become a Youth Director and then go to seminary. 
          Barbara's life influenced many! The spiritual legacy she has left impacts the branches of faith in various places. She was on the 70 member commission to create the ELCA. She left First Lutheran Church two days before I graduated from high school and became the first ordained woman professor at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. She taught and continued to write into retirement. She always encouraged my writing, specifically my Christmas poems. One was published in the December 1998 “Lutheran Women’s Today” magazine.  
            When I posted a sermon on this blog in May of 2009 Barbara commented, “I love the vine and branches imagery. That’s why I chose John 15:5 as my ordination text. I never knew how drastically the vines had to be pruned each year until our family bought a little farm with 100 grape vines. They each grew many, many feet of branches each year and each winter we had to prune them back to just a few inches, a total of twelve inches per vine. So we shouldn’t be surprised as we are at the pruning the Lord does in our lives.”  
          Barbara was pruned from the fellowship of our Christian community, yet to God be the glory for the many words she poured out upon the lives of those who continue to branch out in faith.  Barbara encouraged me and this blog is a reflection of her faithful pruning. Thank God for the Barbara branch.