co-founder Mel West: faith is a verb

From Faith is a verb:
Commentary by the Rev. Mel West
April 28, 2021 | COLUMBIA, Mo.

Faith is a verb. That is the answer I give when I am asked what I have learned in my 97 years of living.

Faith is a verb. And there is an addendum to that: “The cross was not meant to be a piece of jewelry or an expensive top to a church. The cross is meant to be a lifestyle.”

That sums up 97 years of living – faith is a verb, and the cross is a lifestyle.

I will tell you two stories to illustrate what I mean. The first is a fable, and the second a personal story. The fable first.

A professional tightrope walker was preparing to walk a tight cable between two 40-story buildings, pushing a wheelbarrow and with no safety nets. A reporter was there beside him to get the story. He asked her, “Do you believe I can do this?” “Oh, yes, I believe you can do it,” she replied. “Good,” he said. “Get into the wheelbarrow.”

Belief and faith are not the same. I began to understand that as a teenager. When we would recite the Apostles Creed at church, I would say, under my breath, “So what?” We had six books in our home as I grew up, and one was “In His Steps” by Charles Monroe Sheldon. I read it over and over again, convincing myself that what I saw in our church was more belief than action. The wheelbarrow story was just what I needed to deal with my questioning. And it confirmed my love for the Book of James and his insistence that “Faith without works is dead.”

It is not enough to say, “I believe every family should have a decent home in a decent community.” That will accomplish nothing until we pick up a hammer or write a check to some group like Habitat.

It is not enough to say, “I believe that no child should go to bed with an empty tummy.” Only as we give food or write checks are those tummies filled.

It is not enough to say, “I believe our world should be just, civil, loving and kind.” Only as we become the world we want, will it happen.

My wife, Barbara, and I have had 76 years of married life together that have been exciting, inspiring, challenging, satisfying and productive. Acting upon the truth that indeed “faith is a verb” has been central in those years, and I welcome the opportunity to pass that truth on to others and add to it. Here is our story.

We were born 10 days and 200 miles apart in rural Missouri. We met at Missouri University in 1942, and married at the end of WWII, where I was stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. The GI Bill enabled us to finish our last year at MU, and we stood together to receive our diplomas in 1947. Barbara’s degree was in Home Economics and mine in Dairy Husbandry.

We moved back to my home turf in southwest Missouri and took over my grandparents’ 200-acre farm, turning it into a model Grade-A dairy farm with a program called “Balanced Farming.” Purebred Jerseys provided the milk that was our income and ate the feed that the land produced. County Extension had a demonstration day on our farm that attracted some 5,000-plus persons. I report that not to boast, but to say that we were secure in an established business operation.

The Methodist Church was central in our lives. For four years, 1955-59, I served as the lay pastor for a circuit of four churches, as well as operating the farm. All grew, and we received awards. But life was to change. A missionary to India, the Rev. Robert Marble, came to speak at our churches, and he came to our farm for an evening meal. In the course of the evening, he quietly said to me, “Mel, a lot of people can milk cows. Your passion and graces are needed in the full-time ministry, and that will mean seminary.”

We sold our cows and equipment, rented out the farm, and moved to Dallas in 1959 to attend Perkins School of Theology. Our children were moved from a one-room rural school to the inner-city schools of Dallas. We lived in a very small parsonage, and I served an inner-city church that had 27 members come to greet the new preacher and his family.

In the first mid-summer I was in the Perkins Library, asking myself some serious questions. “Mel, what in the world have you done – leaving the security you had and moving the family away from family, home and security?” I was searching for direction. I turned to a scripture that had always intrigued me, Luke 9:23, where Jesus says, “If any person wants to come after me, let him first deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.”

Every word of that verse seemed directed at me. But in practical terms, just what did it mean? In real life, how was it to be put into action? Fortunately, the writer went on to explain. It was a call to action. When the line of human need (any need, large or small), the horizontal line of the cross, crossed the line of our ability to respond, the vertical line, then we had a RESPONS-ABILITY to meet that need, to pick up that cross.

The cross was to be a lifestyle! We are to go about this world with our antennae out, looking for human needs. When we see one we can meet, that is our cross for that moment or a lifetime. We began to live with that understanding of the cross.

In our inner-city Dallas church, we built our congregation from 27 members to 276 in six years. We put “The Church That Cares” on our billboard and went about the community, NOT asking for church members, but saying (on calling cards), “If you ever have any need, large or small, day or night, call us.” We then built a church program in response to those needs.

In Columbia, Missouri, we have been instrumental in starting, or helping start, Koinonia House, a lodging place for low-income persons with family members in the hospital; “Fun City Academy,” a summer program for inner-city children and youth; and Show Me Central Habitat, which has built 150 houses for immigrants.

Statewide, the office I directed, the Office of Creative Ministries, developed youth work camps that worked on the housing needs of some 900 homes of low-income widows, widowers or single mothers. We had an extensive summer ministry at the Lake of the Ozarks that included reaching out to soldiers who were in training to go to Vietnam and experiencing frequent rejection by society. We trained and sent college students to help small churches with their Bible school programs.

In response to poverty and hunger in the world, we started The Festival of Sharing, an annual ecumenical fall festival that raised money for distribution to state and world causes. A project called “TRAG” (TRansportation AGriculture) provided a simple little truck for overseas needs and projects.

The most major project has been Mobility Worldwide (PET), which began in my garage in 1994 and has grown to provide some 90,000 hand-cranked, three-wheeled, sturdily built wheelchairs for leg-handicapped persons who have suffered from polio, landmines, snake bites, birth defects and other causes. All were built by volunteers and were donated.

There has been much more, but it has all been an effort to “take up our cross” by being alert to human needs around us and being “respons-able” by taking action. We recommend that lifestyle to individuals and to the church in general.

Faith is a verb, and the cross is a lifestyle. Get into the wheelbarrow!

West is a retired United Methodist pastor living in Columbia, Mo., and he is a co-founder of Mobility Worldwide (PET).

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