the good ol’ boys

Priscilla Dean Fordham, wife of Ira S. Fordham, and her four minister sons (methodist episcopal church, south), Dennis, Willis, Jerry, and William (L to R).

I love this photograph. The lady on the left, Mrs. Prescilla Dean Fordham, was my great great great grandmother. Seated beside her is her son Dennis, my great great grandfather. Of course, his three brothers seated to the right of him were my great great uncles.

What I enjoy about this picture is that it tells such a rich story of my own roots. The most fascinating tidbit I know about my great great grandfather Dennis Fordham is that he was present when Louisiana’s Methodists determined to create an orphanage which has since grown into Louisiana United Methodist Children and Family Services.

It happened on Saturday morning, December 20, 1902, in Alexandria, Louisiana, during the 57th Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

That morning, just after the Conference vote to pass a resolution to establish Louisiana Methodist Orphanage, my great great grandfather, Rev. Dennis Fordham, was accepted into the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, from the Methodist Protestant Church.

“Being duly recommended by the Arcadia District Conference, the order of Dennis Fordham, a local elder in the Methodist Protestant Church, were, on motion, recognized upon the usual Disciplinary conditions.” (page 34-35)

Conference Journal of the 57th session of the Louisiana Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, held in Alexandria, Louisiana, December 18th to 22nd, 1902.

the role of the church in child welfare and child well-being

A brief discourse presented to the Louisiana Interchurch Conference’s Fall Board of Directors Meeting, by Rick Wheat, President and Chief Executive Officer, Louisiana United Methodist Children and Family Services, on September 25, 2017, at St. Xavier Cathedral Catholic Church Complex, Alexandria, Louisiana.

Good afternoon! You cannot imagine how excited I am to share a few words with all of you about my appreciation for the role of the Church in child welfare and child well-being. You will discern quickly, I am not a theologian. Instead, I have invested the last 30 years of my life in child welfare work. And by the grace of God, I hope to do the same with the next 30.

Today, I will speak with you about the past, I will talk about my concerns for Louisiana’s children today, and I will tell you about the deep chasm I fear is opening before them tomorrow. I will share with you, from the perspective of a layperson, what I believe the role of the church must be.

In 1886, a Presbyterian “city missionary,” a Mrs. Wolfe, planted the seed that grew into what is now Methodist Children’s Home of Greater New Orleans. Mrs. Wolfe repeatedly entered the New Orleans Charity Hospital and rescued girls and their babies who were victims of sex trafficking – a phrase that did not exist at the time.

Let me pause here.

I am so thankful Louisiana now has Metanoia Manor, a safe, secure, 16-bed home for girls who have been sex-trafficked. The girls in Metanoia are cared for by nuns, members of the Hospitaler Sisters of Mercy, who volunteer to meet the needs of these brutally traumatized girls with the assistance of clinical and medical professionals. Metanoia Manor is the newest example – and an excellent example – of the Church caring for Louisiana’s children today.

But back to the past. Mrs. Wolfe’s early Presbyterian work with children in New Orleans was supported by individuals from a variety of faith groups, and on April 15, 1888, this early interdenominational work was substantial enough to be named, “Memorial Home for Young Women.”

During that same century, the Church created numerous homes and services for children including the Protestant Episcopal Children’s Home, Father Turgus Asylum for Widows and Orphans, Immaculate Conception Orphan Girls’ Home, The Jewish Orphan Asylum, Margaret’s Baby House of the Sisters of Charity, Saint Elizabeth’s, The Protestant Orphans’ Home, Sacred Heart Orphanage, St. Joseph’s Orphan Asylum, St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum, St. Vincent Infants’ Asylum, the 7th Street Orphans’ Home, the Louisiana Baptist Orphanage, and coming last to the party, Louisiana Methodist Orphanage in 1902.

It is essential that you understand this: all of these services – and many more – were conceived, created, funded and operated solely by people of faith!

No state agency existed to perform or influence this early work of ministry to desperate children. Simply stated, the Church cared for Louisiana’s children.

Let us return to those late-blooming Methodists who waited until after the turn of the century to go all in for orphans!

In 1902, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, authorized the denomination’s first move to establish an orphanage. In December, Rev. Charles Campbell Wier introduced a resolution cosigned by 19 ministers, to the 47th Session of the Louisiana Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. In presenting his resolution, Rev. Wier contended, “the Methodist Church was the only large denomination in the state that did not have such an institution or any interest in one.” (To me that sounds very much like an appeal to denominational pride. Whatever his tactic, it worked. We Methodists may have been slow out of the gate, but we have been methodical over the long run.)

And again, no state agency existed to do or to influence this early work on behalf of children.

The institution was chartered as “Louisiana Methodist Orphanage.” Since then it has grown into three children’s homes, a statewide therapeutic foster care program, and associated community-based services with 700 employees last year. This, too, is the Church caring for Louisiana’s children today.

Return with me now to New Orleans after the turn of the century. Experiencing the economic impact of World War I, the early interdenominational work at Memorial Home for Young Women struggled due to insufficient financial support. Consequently, Memorial Home for Young Women was adopted by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in 1918 because by that time Methodists had the resources to continue what otherwise would have failed for financial reasons.

No element of state government was involved in any of that early work.

In fact, before 1938, when Louisiana’s Department of Public Welfare was empowered to license and supervise private agencies, the work of caring for Louisiana’s orphans was conducted almost exclusively by the Church without influence or constraint of state powers.

Then, in 1940, the Department of Public Welfare was granted “visitorial powers” over private agencies, and in 1942, when Louisiana’s Department of Public Welfare issued the first license to a private agency, the state took its first step into various and sequential arrangements and agreements with faith-based child welfare agencies to care for Louisiana’s children.

I believe this generally been a good thing.

When I look around Louisiana, there is no doubt that Louisiana’s children have benefited from partnerships of Church and State. We have done more for our children by acting together than could have happened if we had worked apart.

On the one hand, with the state government’s entree into child welfare in the 1940s, laws and methods were created to ensure basic safety for children. Minimum standards of care for private agencies were promulgated. The State of Louisiana began regulating school attendance; ensuring primary medical care was available like health screenings and vaccinations; and implementing laws to protect children from abuse, neglect, and child labor.

On the other hand, with the expansion of government into child welfare, the many participants in the Church’s child welfare efforts were faced with decisions related to the separation of Church and State, distribution of power, and duplication of services. Consequently, some parts of the Church began abdicating their critical work in child welfare. For example, rather than transitioning their orphanages by modifying services to meet the identified needs of children as society evolved and government regulations increased, some denominations shuttered children’s services.

It is important to know that this abdication by the Church was no small thing in Louisiana’s history. For example, the list of shuttered, faith-related child welfare organizations which provided residential care to children – organizations which no longer exist in Louisiana – is very long. It includes more than 65 orphanages and asylums formerly in New Orleans alone. In the vernacular of the street, the Church “owned” child welfare.

Through the years, as the government increased its presence and power in child welfare, the Church backed off.

So, what has happened to the enthusiasm of the Church for children today?

More importantly, what should be the Church’s role on behalf of children in Louisiana today and in the future?

At one time, child well-being was the exclusive work of the Church. Now, the distribution seems about 20% Church and 80% government and public, for-profit corporations. I believe in the future, the government will no longer have the funds available to continue its current significant role. I also think public corporations will exit the field as soon as opportunities for profit disappear.

Listen to me.

When that time comes, unless people of Faith are ready once again to conceive, create, fund and operate child welfare ministries sufficient to fill the yawning cavern of care, Louisiana’s children will slide from 49th in the nation when ranked on child well-being to something horribly unimaginable.

What am I talking about? This: today, in 8 of our 64 parishes in Louisiana, more than 50% of our children under 5 live below the Federal poverty level. When the government steps away from child welfare, and when the public corporations follow, child well-being will grow tragically worse unless the Church is prepared to step up with resources for children as we did in the past.

The church has time, but it cannot be wasted time. I believe the Church must prepare herself today to step into and fill the gap that sits before us.

Now, allow me to shift gears again.

In Louisiana, we understand disasters. We hear the word “disaster” too frequently. Disasters have a tremendous impact on our well-being, and they interfere with our potential. Disasters keep us from a better future.

We live our lives responding to the consequences of actual and potential disasters related to flooding, hurricanes, sinkholes, and mosquito-borne diseases like Zika. This afternoon, we face the very real threat of nuclear war.

Daily, we read in our newspapers of the epidemics we face: “the epidemic of violence,” “the opioid epidemic,” and “two separate HIV epidemics.” We are confronted by the crises of coastal erosion, our state budget’s fiscal cliff, and most recently in New Orleans, the drainage crisis.

While we face a constant stream of trouble, we in Louisiana are exceptionally resilient. We know how to respond, and we do it well – however high the water – except in one case.

We implement comprehensive Disaster Response Plans. Our state government monitors events and launches emergency orders. We move men, women, and equipment. Helicopters carry officials to disaster sites. News reporters catch the action. The Cajun Navy launches and literally saves lives! Faith groups organize to pray, open shelters, feed people, create flood buckets, distribute clothing, and restore housing.

We in Louisiana are the nation’s disaster experts. When we see a threat to our well-being, we respond bravely and boldly – except to one particular disaster.

Louisiana’s children face an unnamed, steady-state disaster – it is an unrecognized epidemic, a crisis of such massive consequence that it places the future of Louisiana at risk in ways we are only now beginning to imagine and understand.

It is the disaster of child well-being.

How well Louisiana cares for her children today – how well we care for all our state’s children today – predicts our collective future much more surely and accurately than any other measure of our society.

The purpose of the Church is to act as the hands and feet of Christ in this world. I cannot imagine Jesus abdicating his love of children. The man who said, “allow the children to come to me” when adults were shoving them away – that Man inspires me.

I want all people of faith in Louisiana to be inspired, to be passionate about caring for our children, to think of every child as our own, and to act and advocate on their behalf. If we cannot do this, if the Church abdicates its responsibility, then our children (and, consequently, our society) are doomed.

The Church must prepare itself today to step into the gap and care for children when the government and public corporations walk away. When that time comes, the Church must be ready to conceive, create, fund and operate all the child welfare ministries necessary to love all the children of Louisiana.

A daunting task, for sure!

But do not fear. Remember, it may have been a while, but we have done this before!

You have a packet before you. It is filled with reports about the status of Louisiana’s children. This is not pretty stuff. For example, you will see a chart ranking Infant Mortality. On it, you will see that if Louisiana were a nation, we would be ranked behind 81 other countries on infant mortality.

I believe this is material which you who lead our faithful must know. This information must inform your perspectives and inspire your decisions. These facts about child well-being, about child welfare in our state, must fill your thoughts about the role of the church in Louisiana.

Thank you for this time together. May God bless each of you, those whom you serve, and all our precious children!

tears behind my eyes

I wrote an article recently for my Multiple Sclerosis Caregiver blog. It’s titled “Tears of Hope and Passionate Hate”. In it, I used words I find myself using more frequently as I grow older. The phrase is, “tears behind my eyes”.

I’ve used the phrase recently to describe a day to my Mom, “It has been one of those ‘tears behind my eyes’ days.” I used it at work in a conversation with a colleague. “You’re having a ‘tears behind your eyes’ day, aren’t you?”, I asked.

As I think about it this evening, I realize I’m not talking about a bad thing. I’m not describing depression or even dysthymia. I use the phrase to describe a lot of things: a simple physiological response to persistent, low-grade grief; as a response to too much stress; and as a consequence of potential hope – not yet hope, just the potential for it. Having “tears behind my eyes” is not a negative. It is healthy.

How often do you experience a moment when your emotions are scratched by the reality of your daily routine? The scratch isn’t enough for pain. Not enough for an emotional breakdown. But enough that you know you feel something deep. It’s a good thing. In fact, the article I wrote describes tears of hope. I want my wife healed!

The next time you find tears behind your eyes, don’t deny them. Let them give you pause. What put them there? Sadness or hope? Stress or relief? Joy? Should you turn them loose or hold them behind your eyes? You’ll answer that for yourself. What you need to remember is that they’re yours and they’re a gift to remind you of how emotionally real life can be.

Here’s what I think. We benefit when we learn to appreciate the tears behind our eyes. They are there for good purpose.

hold hands when you pray

It’s the sure repetition of small, beneficial acts in a marriage that creates value for the relationship.

Significance is often discovered in the small things. Fortunately, because taking care of the small stuff in a marriage often requires the least effort while offering the greatest return, it makes sense to do the easy stuff.

Remember the part about “sure repetition”, though. To do a small thing once may be incredibly significant … especially if you’ve never done it before … but the true value accumulates through faithful repetition.

Here’s a simple example. My wife and I hold hands during prayers. Always. At weddings. During church services. Before meals. At building dedications. Before ballgames. At family gatherings. We started doing it before we were married and because it feels good, we’ve continued.

Some may say, “Well, Rick, I don’t want to hold my wife’s hand during prayers. That sounds like a gimmick.” If that’s the case, then maybe it would be for you. I’m merely sharing an example of how the repetition of a simple, beneficial act works for me and my wife.

What I do know is this: if we didn’t both perceive that holding hands during prayers was of great value, the practice would have ended at some time during the last twenty years. The sure repetition of this small, beneficial act has created value for both of us.

So what do I get from the simple act of holding hands during prayers?

It’s all personal. I love holding my wife’s hand because it makes me feel good. I love being connected to her. I love the reminder that we stand together before God as a couple, as parents, as friends. I love the sense of tradition and the notion that “this is our thing, we do this because we enjoy it.” I love being reminded at the beginning of each prayer that this is a way we give attention to each other. (Maybe God smiles.) And here’s an odd one: over the years I’ve enjoyed an occasional peek around a room (sorry God) during prayers and I’ve noticed how few couples hold hands anymore. I enjoy being reminded that she still loves to hold my hand. It makes what we do feel special.

If you’ve not done it in a while, you might surprise your partner by taking her hand during a prayer. To avoid a startle (if it’s been a while), maybe slip your pinky finger around hers. I can’t suggest you’ll immediately get as much from it as we do because we’ve done it for twenty years. It’s part of our marriage DNA. I merely offer it as an example.

Whether you hold hands during prayers or not, I do think every couple can find small, beneficial acts of attention that are easy to do. And I know from my own experience, these acts will accumulate value for for the couple as they do them consistently over the years. When repeated over time, it’s these small, beneficial acts in a marriage that have huge potential to add great value to a marriage.

happily married

I am a happily married man!

I enjoy my wife and our life together. Today I made reservations for us to return to our honeymoon cabin in Arkansas next March for our 20th anniversary. I’m filled with joy over it.

I have a photo which I took on our honeymoon. It sits on my desk. It’s a reminder of many things for me, but it serves primarily as a memorial to joy, overcoming fear, and commitment for the long haul.

Married just a few days and exploring Eureka Springs, Arkansas, we drove by an observation tower. My wife pointed and exclaimed, “let’s go look!”

I turned around and parked. Afraid of heights, I studied the tower and noticed the first platform about 15 feet above the ground. I could do that. I expected we would stop there, look, take a picture and return to earth.

Robbie hurried across the parking lot and started up first. I followed her carefully, walking slowly up to the first observation level.

She wasn’t there!

Instead I heard her running up the metal steps to the top. I faced a dilemma. I faced a critical decision: “Do I stand here and wait for her to come down (and look like a wimp) or do I venture after her to the top?”

I often consider how current events will impact my future. I knew, if proven a wimp on my honeymoon, I’d never feel good about it. I swallowed my fear and with both hands grasping the stair rails I slowly climbed to the top.

A few minutes later, with the tower swaying in the wind and my stomach knotted up, I stepped slowly and gently from the last step onto the platform at the top of the tower. Robbie was leaning out at the edge looking across the valley. We were alone at the top of the world.

“Come here,” I said, standing near the stairs trying to hide as much of my terror as I could, “and kiss me.”

We kissed. I held my old Pentax camera out at arms’ length, pointed the lens toward our kissing faces, and I tripped the shutter. “Gotta go,” I muttered in fear and started slowly and carefully back toward Earth. In my opinion, it’s the best photo I’ve ever shot.

The angle, the lighting, the wind … it’s an excellent photo. She’s taller than me in the photo because I was hunkered low near the stairs. The wind is blowing her hair in my face. We’re captured against a beautiful blue sky. The photo is in a gold frame in a red heart-shaped mat with two doves cut into the mat’s upper corners.

It’s a picture of swirling, giddy, joy. Just the two of us kissing, both high, on top of the world on a beautiful, breezy, blue-sky day. She, full of energy and possessed of all graces, overflowing with the excitement of a newlywed, and filled full of hope for a splendid life ahead. I, light-headed at the height of it all, dizzy, holding on to her, the only sure thing I find to hold at the top of the world, up near the clouds.

I love that photo because it’s a metaphor for all that marriage has been for me – the daily opportunity to climb happy towers with my wife – living high on love on the top of the world. You may think I gush, but I tell you, it’s true!

I am happily married!

Stones for Remembering

What do you think about God? Have you ever been afraid to follow a thought trail about God because you were worried about where it would go or concerned you might have a “dangerous” thought? Theological brain storms can move a lot of stale brain-air and refresh the cavities of one’s mind. But things move in strong winds.

When we think wild thoughts about God we need tent pegs to keep our tents from flying off in a storm of confusion. Or maybe like in the Old Testament, we need piles of rocks we can use as reminders when we see them. The Hebrew nation crossed the Jordan river into the promised land and God told each tribe to gather a large stone and pile them together for a place of remembering so they could tell their children. We need stones for remembering.

No one can tell you what your own Theological stones look like. You have to drive down your own tent pegs. You have to discover your own rocks; you must work it out in fear and trembling; you’ve got to find the theological foundations – those stones of remembering – which you can hang onto and which give you the courage and security to think wildly about God and ask fearful questions.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God

I “met” John Donne in high school and have been grateful since. Here’s my favorite of his Holy Sonnets. (Hint: Read it slowly about 50 times.)

Holy Sonnets: Batter my heart, three-person’d God

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

John Donne (1572-1631)

The Mind You Save

The mind you save may be your own. Here’s more good news for coffee drinkers from our Finnish friends:

Midlife coffee and tea drinking and the risk of late-life dementia

Midlife coffee drinking can decrease the risk of dementia/Alzheimer’s disease (AD) later in life. This conclusion is made in a Finnish Cardiovascular Risk Factors, Aging and Dementia (CAIDE) Study published in the January 2009 issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease (Volume 16:1).

When Does Wrong Become Wrong?

How really wrong is wrong?

Recently, Madoff made off with as much as $50 billion in investor funds placed in his trust. It was a Ponzi scheme that began years ago.

I wonder how small the first act of deceit was. Was it $10,000 or was it a million dollars? And is it more wrong to steal from a non-profit foundation than from an offshore hedge fund?

The NYT is reporting that the former chairwoman of the Sanlu Group, one of China’s largest dairy producers, pleaded guilty to selling fake milk powder. Ms. Tian Wenhua, a former Sanlu executive said she knew in May Sanlu was selling milk contaminated with melamine. She did not report this when she learned of it. The melamine scandal wasn’t made public until August.

According to the article, Wenhua’s delay helped lead to the deaths of 6 children and 300,000 illnesses. Who added the first tablespoon of melamine? Was it an amount that small or did someone dump gallons or even a ton as their first act of wrong?

Is it more wrong to steal a $1,000,000 than $10,000? Do the zeros add up in the math of morality as they do in financial math? Is the first stolen billion dollars not quite as bad as the third or 43 billion dollars?

Is it more wrong if too much melamine kills six children instead of merely causing severe illness? Is causing illness in 3 children as bad as causing illness in 300,000?

How really wrong is wrong? Is Madoff’s wrong less if an attorney convinces a jury that he should do no time or receive a reduced sentence?

One cannot watch the news without being overwhelmed by the lack of moral integrity at work in the world of business. For too many individuals, corporations and government agencies the end (the “almighty dollar”) seems to justify any means.

Can you imagine how thoroughly frustrated ancient Diogenes would be after a random walk down Wall Street?

But before we point our fingers too firmly, how moral is Main Street? Who fully trusts any local business? Not many of us. And it’s not because we don’t want to trust. We’ve learned after we’ve been burned.

Somewhere along the path of capitalism, it became “wrong” to pass up the chance to take advantage of another, even if it required being dishonest in a transaction. Many act as if they believe it’s more wrong to be moral than to miss a deal.

How really wrong is wrong? Wrong is wrong.

Here’s what I think …

Morality begins in the heart and in the home. Then it walks out into your neighborhood and morality interacts with your friends. From heart and home, morality goes to Main Street and then, perhaps, to Wall Street. Wherever you find it, morality starts in the heart.

Moral integrity dictates that stealing $1 is as wrong as stealing $50 billion. It stipulates that sickening one child is a wrong as harming 300,000. Wrong is wrong.

It’s a difficult standard, but wrong is wrong.

Cast Iron Values

I’ve had my eye on a 9 quart, Lodge Dutch Oven for quite a while. I bought it today with Christmas gift money from my parents. And I got a great deal on it at our local hardware store. Because it’s cast iron and will last hundreds of years, it’s possible one of my great, great, great, etc., grand children will use it, too.

Lodge Cast Iron is the oldest family-owned, family-operated cookware foundary in the United States. Located in South Pittsburg, TN, Lodge has made cast iron cookware for more than 100 years.

In a February 2, 2005 article, “Skillet Sense”, the Chicago Tribune compared six skillets ranging from the $12 Lodge Cast Iron skillet to the $160 Viking Professional 7-Ply. You can find the article on the Lodge website.

The conclusion after review in the test kitchen?

“To our surprise, higher cost didn’t automatically equal best performance. While the most expensive skillets certainly performed well, the skillet we like the best cost the least: the Lodge pre-seasoned cast-iron skillet.”

Here’s what I think …

There is little that has real value available to consumers. We’ve become consumers of disposable everythings. Even expensive things like computers, 30-inch monitors and washing machines are disposable. And we pay dearly for our disposable junk. We know when we buy our expensive toys, the manufacturers have little faith in them. Most computers, monitors and washing machines come with only a 12 month warranty.

Cast iron cookware offers real value. The skillet or dutch oven you buy today will last so long you could pass it on to your grandchildren who could pass it to their grandchildren. Try to do that with an HDTV!