Archive for November, 2018


by The Rev. Barbara Mraz

How embarrassing to find things in your basement from decades ago, especially when those things are beyond stupid. “Who the heck gave me THIS?” you wonder. Was I ever so unsophisticated as to think this was funny?

Then there was the day I found Big Mouth Billy Bass. Here is what a recent Internet posting said about it:

First released in April 2000, Big Mouth Billy Bass wasn’t just a hit, he was a cultural sensation. The premise was simple: comprised of realistically fishy rubber and plastic mounted on a trophy plaque, the Big Mouth Billy Bass was typically hung over a mantle or fireplace. On first glance, the fish looked real — perhaps a taxidermy prize from a relative’s fishing expedition? Walk past him, however, and the head would abruptly swivel away from the wall to face the room. After a slight pause, he would sing.

Remember, this was back in 2000, a time when Tickle-Me-Elmo and Furby had ushered in a national obsession with cute, animated toys. Initially, Big Mouth Billy Bass was genuinely startling. “It was magic,” remembers Jason McCann, chief executive of Gemmy Industries. “People wanted to show their friends so they could watch their reactions.”
Tweets, Facebook posts, Vines and YouTube videos didn’t yet exist; Billy Bass went viral anyway. Restaurants lined their walls with the talking fish, DJs played the “fish song” (back then, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” or “Take Me to the River”) in venues across the country, and Billy Bass appeared on talk shows. At first, stores sold out so fast that waitlists were implemented. “We sold millions and millions and millions,” says McCann.

Maybe I bought this thing for a Christmas present one year for my dad and then my brother must have stuck Billy into the pile of stuff I was bringing home when we cleaned out our parents’ house?

Ha ha.

Well, Billy has just crooned his last melody because he is in the pile of stuff in my car for the monthly trip to the Goodwill, along with boxes of books, bags of clothes, and container after container of “housewares.”

It seems that I am in a continual state of “decluttering,” simplifying, and downsizing to make my life saner and my surroundings less frantic. My kids gifted me with the best-selling Marie Kondo book, “The Life-changing Magic of Tiding Up” in which she says you shouldn’t keep anything that isn’t useful or doesn’t bring you “joy.”

What if we applied the same principles to religious faith: disregarding what is outdated, no longer works, or is down right embarrassing intellectually? What would make the cut? What would be left? Why does it matter?

Well, it matters a lot when people are leaving churches by the thousands (Star-Tribune, November 11 2018, “Fastest Growing Religion Is None”).

Asked another way, what is the irreducible minimum that is necessary for Christianity? It may not be what you think….

One of the things a faith must have for me is a sense of humor, even if it’s simply the difference in how we perceive things now from when the texts were written. One of my favorite lines in this respect is from Sunday’s first lesson, from I Samuel. Here Hannah is having trouble conceiving a child and is in utter despair over this fact. Her husband Elkannah (who already has another wife and kids) says to Hannah, “Babe, aren’t I more to you than ten sons?”

Okay, I added the “Babe,” but Elkannah must have been quite a guy based on that statement! I am guessing that Hannah wanted to answer no but….

See you in church, when we will downsize, and in the process, I hope, fall in love all over again with the beauty – and usefulness – of Christian faith.





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Yesterday St. John’s held our Chili Bowl Cook-off, an annual fundraiser for our Hearts to Homes ministry that helps families coming out of homelessness. If you weren’t able to give at the event, you can still donate online or by text (click this link for all details).

Congratulations to the winners!


Diane Wallace-Reid also shared some things to think about in the November-December 2018 Evangelist:

Home for me is a well-stocked kitchen, flowers on the table, family pictures on the wall, my grandmother’s quilt draped on the bed, a window to the garden.

When I see a guy with his home on his back, a person with a shopping cart filled with his worldly possessions, or a woman with bulging shopping bags and several layers of clothing slogging down the street, I wonder: “Where is home for them? Is it over a heat vent in an alley, a spot under a bridge, the tent city along Franklin Avenue or Hiawatha?”

The contrast is almost unbearable to think about. Homelessness gets to me.

What’s there to do? Wring our hands and hope someone else is taking care of things? Do we take Jesus literally that “the poor will always be with us” and look the other way? Do we hand them money or a water bottle and then drive on? Do we act on the words of Jesus in Matthew 25: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me?” Do other questions come to mind?

Knowing that Christ is as present in them as in me, I am moved to compassion and action. If you feel as I do, there are ways to respond. People are stepping up in our community and in our ministries at St. John’s.

Our Hearts to Homes ministry provides financial support and personal one-on-one mentoring for families coming out of homelessness. To learn more, contact Margaret Thor at margaretcthor@gmail.com.

Our Project Home ministry provides overnight housing at St. John’s for the month of February. To learn more, contact Holly and Don Weinkauf at betterwein@gmail.com.

In this season of abundance, as we ponder ways to share our time, talent and treasure, let’s give thought to the homeless among us.


Homelessness in Minnesota:

How many are there?  In 2013, the Wilder Foundation counted 9,312 people as homeless in Minnesota but estimated perhaps 15,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in Minnesota, 12% of them children.

Why don’t they get a job? Many homeless people are working fulltime jobs at minimum wage.  A minimum wage of $9.25/hour equals $1,480 gross per month, too much money to qualify for food stamps, but not enough money to afford a one-bedroom apartment in St. Paul—the average cost of which is over $1,000/month and rising.

What got them to this place?  Lack of affordable housing. Lack of employment. Chronic health conditions.  Histories of abuse or violence. Discriminatory housing policies and other systemic inequities. And lots of other things embedded in their past. Each homeless person has a personal story as complex as our own.


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By the Rev. Barbara Mraz

As her name was announced and she stepped up to receive her college diploma, the school choir burst forth with the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah, an enthusiastic acknowledgment of a remarkable accomplishment and a dream realized.

Her journey brought her from war-torn Liberia to Morris Brown University in Atlanta and in 2004 to the Twin Cities. Today she is a mother of two impressive young daughters, a mental health practitioner and also a member of St. John’s. Hers is a story of personal and family strength, steadfast commitment, and the saving power of community.



She grew up in Robertsport, a small city in Liberia that was densely populated by Muslims. It was a close community; everyone knew one another including the kids. Her father was a traveling judge, and eventually an associate justice on the Supreme Court of Liberia. An older brother became a professor at the University of Liberia.

Her father loved his church, St. John’s Irving Memorial Episcopal Church, founded by Baptist missionaries from the U.S. He held virtually every position in his parish including senior warden, and was also chair of the Diocesan Council and Chancellor of the Diocese. Her mother was a practicing Muslim. Wuyah explains, “My siblings and I knew what Ramadan was and not to interrupt my mother when she was praying, but she also woke us up in the morning to go to church. She was there for all of our activities and reminded us when it was time to go to choir practice.” (Wuyah sang in the church choir from age seven until she came to America). “My mother held me when I was baptized and was present later when I was confirmed at age 12. Christians and Muslims got along fine in my community so I was confused and then shocked when I came to the U.S, and saw so much discord, intolerance and prejudice.”



In the early Nineties when Wuyah was thirteen, civil war broke out in Liberia. The family was forced to leave their home and city and flee to the west coast near Sierra Leone. Three years later, they returned to find their city in ruins. The roof had been blown off the school (although they still resumed classes there, without the roof). Her farther had lost his law practice and the family‘s finances were decimated. Wuyah lost two brothers during the war and a host of friends and relatives. After her brother Matthew was shot by a Nigerian soldier at a check point, Wuyah rushed to the scene and witnessed his lifeless body dragged and thrown into the back of a truck. Instantly, her world changed: She would leave her country and somehow go to college in America.

Her father had earned a Master’s degree himself at the State University of Illinois and had taught her: “Education is the key that will unlock the doors.” She believed him.



Immediately, Wuyah went to the American Embassy and applied for a visa. One requirement was to have a support system in America—relatives, friends, someone who could help provide financial support. She had none of these but told the interviewer ,”I can’t live in this country any more.” She related the murders of family members and the death of her brother. She was told to come back the next day.

When she did, the interviewer said, “I believe in you and God bless you.” She handed Wuyah her passport. Inside was her visa.

Immediately she began researching schools and sent out numerous applications. She had decided that that the first school to accept her would be where she would go. That school was Morris Brown College in Atlanta, an historically-black school originally affiliated with the African-American Episcopal Church.

She arrived at Morris Brown in 1997 and started attending classes, not knowing she was not officially registered. After a month she went to the registrar’s office and admitted she had no money, no scholarship, and no obvious means of support. When asked about her interests she said, “I think I can sing.”

She met with the head of the Music Department and formed a lasting friendship with the woman who would become her mentor. She cleaned houses, she slept on people’s couches, and along the way she received scholarships to help her. She graduated with a degree in Business Management and Accounting and a 3.8 grade average, Magna Cum Laude.



In Atlanta, Wuyah had two children, Geegbey and Hawah Sharon, “named for my African and American mothers.” (Hawah was her mother’s name; Sharon was the name of the music director at Morris Brown.)

With her daughters in tow, Wuyah came to Minnesota in 2004 because she found she had cousins here. “I didn’t realize it would be so cold,” she admits.

Wuyah remembers: “For a time I was really struggling; my girls were ages three and under one. I stayed with a cousin, I stayed with a friend, I had no job and no transportation. However, I befriended a woman in the Liberian community who then introduced me to some other women about my mother’s age. There were nine of them and they embraced me; they babysat for me every day so that I could find a job and go to work.”



Wuyah got a job at Wells Fargo in the mortgage department and a second job at a human services agency, two full-time jobs. Her daily schedule would be to get up and be on her way by 5:00am and drop off the kids so as to be at work by 6:00. She finished her second job at 10:00pm, picked up the kids at 10:30 and then went home to make lunches and get ready for the next day. She slept four hours a night. She did this for five years.

She says she often wondered where she got the strength, why she didn’t break down. She says,” I believe in the concept of parental blessing. I believe my parents were praying for me. I believe you have to honor your parents and every word that comes out of their mouths. My father taught me that to whom much is given, much is required. He believed in high standards, in respect for elders.”

Wuyah’s culture require her to take care of her parents, siblings and other family members. She is the bread winner for her family. For the past twenty years, she has consistently shared her monthly earnings with siblings, parents, nieces, nephews and others. She has paid tuition for over fifty family members. She is responsible for medical bills and emergencies for her family, not only in Liberia but also in Ghana.

She had subsequent jobs working with the elderly and this led her to a Master’s degree in Health and Human Services at St. Mary’s University; she is about to receive a second Master’s there in Human Resources Management. She managed a Traumatic Brain Injury program and now is a social worker working in the field of mental health. (“There is not one mental health agency in Liberia,” she notes.) She and her daughters live in Maple Grove.

Wuyah looked at churches in the Twin Cities for a long time before coming to St John’s. It was the choir and the warmth of the welcome that convinced her to stay. Now she is a mentor for a Hearts to Homes family and notes, “It would cost people a lot of money to get these services and they are provided free. The fact that St. John’s does this is a very big deal.”



In 2014 she was struck by yet another tragedy. The Ebola outbreak in Liberia took the lives of her older sister and a niece; a total of 14 family members died in less than two weeks. Yet Wuyah says, “Despite experiences of 13 years of civil conflict, hardships and tragedies, I am not bitter but remain grateful because God has never failed me.”


Wuyah’s personal strength and steadfast belief continue to have positive effects, large and small, on those around her. One day her daughters rushed by another young girl in the apartment lobby. Wuyah insisted that they come back and introduce themselves to each other. Now they walk home from school together.

“Hallelujah” indeed.


Originally published in the January-February 2018 Evangelist.

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By Bette Ashcroft

“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.”
-Dr. Parker J. Palmer

Who in the world are you?                          

What in heavens name are you doing? 

These are some serious spiritual questions. Have you ever experienced a yearning to discover the real purpose of your life? To learn how to recognize and respond to the presence of the Holy Spirit in the “ordinary”?

Life in 2018 is full of noise and distraction. So many tools that exist to make our lives simple and efficient have instead burdened us with ever more demands on our time and attention. Amid all these distractions, I invite you to pause: to take some time to consider what special and specific ministry God intends for you.

Every individual is blessed with gifts, interests, and experiences that allow us to participate in the ongoing renewal and reconciliation of God’s creation. Those of us who are not ordained priests and deacons (the “laity”) are meant “to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world.” (BCP p. 855)

This means we can do more than simply “fill in” the gaps which exist in the life of our parish community. Finding the shape of our gifts goes beyond volunteering for any ministry that needs helpers. It means finding the true meaning and purpose that God has shaped us for. This is a process that requires, above all, prayerful attention.

Once we discover our true shape for ministry, our lives will be enriched rather than diminished, we’ll be energized rather than exhausted. We will see how we may fit into the bigger picture of God’s design. We may need to let go of some things in order to make space for others.

You may feel you have already tried, and perhaps failed, to discover your spiritual gifts. What should you do next? What will allow you to fully engage in the ministry we have been created to embody?

Here at St. John’s, we have two new resources to assist you in answering these questions.

On Saturday, November 10, a workshop called “Finding Your Fit: You are SHAPED for Ministry” will be held from 9am-1pm in the Fireside Room. First you will explore your own unique passion, gifts, personal style, and experience. This is followed by a one-hour meeting with a trained consultant who will focus on your personal profile and how it might fit with opportunities to serve at St. John’s or in the wider community. Finally, you will be encouraged to serve in the ministry you have identified. You will not be “drafted” into serving. The purpose of SHAPE is to assist, not push, you into ministry that is life giving rather than energy draining. There is no cost for the workshop, and lunch is served. RSVP to Lea Anne Schmidt at leaanne.schmidt@stjohnsstpaul.org.

We also recommend Dr. Parker J. Palmer’s short book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation as a wonderful way to prepare for this discernment. Dr. Palmer draws from the Quaker tradition of deep listening. Several volumes are available in the Library; please borrow a copy and return it when you have finished so that others may enjoy.

Together, let us pause to listen and discover who God has shaped us to be and to do.



Originally published in the November-December 2018 Evangelist.

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