OPC Committee on Diaconal Ministries
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Lemonade From Lemons: Continuing the Conversation 2021

by Scott Pearce, Church of the Covenant, Hackettstown, NJ

On Saturday, June 12, at the approximate time of what would have been the closing program of the OPC’s Committee on Diaconal Ministry’s fourth Diaconal Summit in Chicago, a hundred deacons from across the denomination instead gathered for instruction, encouragement, and networking…in a massive Zoom meeting!

Call it another lemonade-from-lemons moment associated with COVID-19. Call it another case of the heart of men planning a way, but the Lord directing the steps. Chalk up another “instead,” another “alternate arrangement,” another “in light of present circumstances…” after more than 15 months of cancellations, delays, and postponements. And yet, with COVID-19 seemingly fading into our collective rear-view, we might each actually come to refer to the 2021 diaconal summit as the last important event on our calendar that was significantly altered by COVID-19 (even so, let it be!).

If the 2021 diaconal summit was significantly altered in form, venue, and execution (and it was), be assured that it was not lacking in substance, intimacy, or a sense of brotherhood. This was not your monthly corporate management meeting with that one co-worker oblivious to his dog’s incessant barking. This was not your granddaughter across the country trying to show you her new bicycle but really only inadvertently showing you her nostrils and chin. The resounding testimony of this particular participant was that the 2021 diaconal summit was a great success and a blessing to those able to join in that sweet 90 minutes of conversation.

To be sure, there was a lot condensed into our 90 minutes together on that Saturday! To welcome us, David Nakhla played virtual host while we all configured our Zoom settings and looked to see who we might recognize on one of the other pages of video boxes. David greeted so many of us by name—and not just because we were “wearing a name tag,” so to speak. This is a brother who is personally familiar with the diaconate of our denomination, and it shows in many ways.

Retired Army chaplain and current CDM member Rev. Rick Dickinson opened the meeting with a brief devotional from John 16:32-33. He encouraged us with the words of Him who has overcome the world and challenged us to “learn and remember that the best opportunities to glorify and enjoy God will occur through circumstances we never would have chosen for ourselves.” There are many of us who perhaps knew firsthand the wisdom of that aphorism in the pre-COVID era, but Rev. Dickinson’s words certainly spoke to each of us who have deaconed in and after the COVID era.

A subsequent message from Rev. Nathan Trice was presented in order to prompt us to consider and reflect on three of the main challenges with which seemingly every church and every diaconate was faced in 2020 and early 2021. First, how can a deacon/diaconate help a congregation keep the needs of body and soul in balance? Second, what role(s) does a diaconate play in trying to maintain (or restore) peace and unity in the face of disagreement between brothers? Finally, how can deacons best serve disaffected or contentious people in a congregation? Rev. Trice’s warm and personable testimonies of his own congregation’s struggles and successes were woven through his message and helped “prime the pump” in advance of the keynote portion of our time together.

Through means and methods known only to unseen engineers in the far recesses of virtual lands where people know what things like VDI stand for and how The Cloud (so called) works, we 100 or so deacons on 85 or so independent devices were placed—suddenly and seamlessly!—into discussion groups of 10 to 12. And this, brothers, was where the blessings and upbuilding of the participating deacons was most powerfully and palpably manifest.

Once in our virtual discussion rooms, the event became personal. It shrunk from lecture hall to workshop. It changed from the feeling of sharing an auditorium to sharing seats around a table. The crown jewel of the 2021 virtual summit was the time spent in the discussion group with a group of nine or 10 other deacons from across the country.

There, in three rows of tiled screens, were the faces of fellow front-line workers. There, in ages and voices and experience as varied as Joseph’s coat, were the brothers who had labored in the same ways, struggled against the same challenges, and wrestled with the same uncertainties and anxieties that had faced all our own diaconates. In the discussion group setting was an immediate and intimate sense of camaraderie and encouragement.

We talked about what worked. We talked about what plans went askew. We remembered “back in the early days” and we shared what our congregations were doing to transition back to “normal.” Perhaps most simply (and most profoundly), we talked with brothers who knew what this year had been like for the deacons of Christ’s church. We were each men who had ministered and served in a year like no other. We were men who had executed our session’s unprecedented and ever-changing policies. We were men who were often conflicted and confused ourselves yet couldn’t relinquish the high call of the office at a time such as this. For a heartening half hour, we felt a sense of solidarity and we, I have no doubt, each felt much less alone.

I think that even those of us who couldn’t get in front of a laptop on June 12 can express great thanks to the organizing committee for their work in planning, preparation, and execution. That there was even a next-best-thing option presented to the OPC diaconate is a testimony to the love and dedication that flows from the Committee on Diaconal Ministries on a seemingly perpetual basis. There is a veritable graveyard of businesses, schools, clubs, and non-profits that have folded under the restrictions and volatility of this past year, and the CDM could have folded their hands on the summit in likewise fashion. Instead, we deacons are exceedingly grateful for the invitation and the virtual venue that was presented to us this year.

We would also be remiss if we did not express how well their plans were executed by the team behind the scenes. Trish Duggan’s reminders and instructive emails elevated even the most technologically-challenged of us to competent Zoomers. Mark Stumpff’s unseen hand rivaled only perhaps Gandalf the Grey’s for sheer wizardry and technical precision. That one hundred participants, a dozen breakout rooms, a pre-recorded keynote speaker, and four time zones peacefully co-existed and interacted for a full 90 minutes is a great testament to the Lord’s blessing on the event and to Mark’s great skill.

If you are anything like me, perhaps you have (with a heart full of mixed and conflicted emotions) been uttering some version of the declaration, “Well, I hope that was my last Zoom meeting!” every month since October 2020. How great a loss I would have suffered if those temporal desires of my heart had been fulfilled and I had somehow not participated in the 2021 “Continuing the Conversation” virtual summit! I take no liberties to state that the virtual summit was a great encouragement to each man who participated. May we each carry a torch of refreshment and renewed zeal back to our own diaconates as we each transition back to the “normal” labors of Christ’s kingdom in the months ahead.


Who Helps the Local Deacon?

You probably wouldn’t have to go far to find a deacon who sometimes feels overloaded. The range of diaconal duties can be overwhelming, even for a seasoned, well-experienced deacon. Why? Well, it may have to do with why he accepted the call in the first place.

For a deacon, it probably started with a need. A need that raised him from his chair and put him into action. Deacons care. Maybe it started with him helping to distribute flyers for Vacation Bible School. Maybe he saw that elderly woman who needed help to her pew. Or maybe he saw the same guy doing “everything” behind the scenes and it caused him to say, “I can probably help.” A deacon is one who has a heart for helping where help is needed.

So, who takes care of the local deacon when he is over-taxed, and needs help or advice himself? With the same desire that a deacon has to fulfill a need in his congregation, the men of the OPC Committee on Diaconal Ministries desire to serve the local deacon, in the midst of his load.

The OPC diaconate is a group of over 800 men! Imagine the blessing to a deacon if he had someone to pray with or with whom he could share burdens or a quick phone call for advice? Maybe he just needs to be encouraged by someone who knows what he’s going through. Some deacons are the lone deacon in a small congregation; others are a member of a large diaconal board.  Either way they are a part of a much larger support system—men who are often balancing similar types of loads.

If you are a deacon, you might be saying, “Well, I’m really not feeling that. Praise the Lord, things are kind of low-key right now and I don’t really feel over-burdened.” Ok, but what if you could be the load-lifter for another deacon?

With the postponement of the National Diaconal Summit to 2022, the Committee on Diaconal Ministries is offering an online event that won’t replace being together in Chicago in June, but just might be the most encouraging Zoom call you have during COVID. Fellowship, encouragement, and equipping each other, even if you’re miles apart. 
Deacons deal with the same questions and the same situations, yet often feel like they are on their own. The CDM wants to connect more of the 800 men more often, and that can’t wait until the summer 2022. Strength and encouragement for our deacons can’t wait another year until we can meet. 

So, why is the CDM event, “Continuing the Conversation”, so important? Deacons need a place to talk. Deacons need a place and a way to support each other. COVID has challenged that. “CtC” is our answer. Join us. We’ll talk, pray, encourage and make plans to do that more often and in different ways.

There are already 66 men registered to be on the call. If you are a deacon and have not yet committed to this 90-minute event on June 12th, please do so now. It will take you just two minutes to register. Go to: OPCCDM.org/continuing-the-conversation.


Ministering to Body and Soul

When Pastor Melaku Solomon Tamirat arrived in this country with his two sons in April 2019 to join his wife, Meron, he had already been serving for 20 years as a pastor in the Reformed Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Ethiopia. He had known ROPC pastor, Zecharias Weldeyesus, since they had met at a church conference in Pretoria, South Africa, in 2005, and the latter soon engaged Melaku in helping with ROPC’s ministry to refugees in Clarkston (recently named Redeemer Mercy Ministry).

When Pastor Chris Cashen left the position as leader of ROPC’s work in Clarkston in August 2020, Melaku stepped into this role in a provisional capacity. ROPC members recently voted to call him to this position, which will be become official, says Zaki, once Melaku passes upcoming OPC committee and presbytery exams. With a bachelor’s degree in theology, Melaku has completed an English course here and is currently taking additional theology courses at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Taylors, SC, to satisfy the Presbytery requirement for transfer of his credentials.

Melaku did not begin his career as an adherent to Reformed theology. He grew up in the Eastern Orthodox Church, which taught that there are many ways to salvation, numerous mediators in addition to Jesus, and sacred texts outside the Bible. “I read the Bible—specifically, Acts 4:12, John 14:6, and John 17:3—and saw that it said salvation is through Jesus,” he says. When he began teaching this truth in his church’s youth group, the church wanted him out, despite the fact that many were converted.

After reading and understanding a book of systematic theology translated into Amharic by a pastor in Virginia, Melaku says he accepted the Reformed faith, attended seminary through distance learning, passed the exam, and was ordained by OPC missionaries.

Since then, he worked in church planting, helping grow 13 churches throughout Ethiopia, with many people being converted to Christ.

When Melaku arrived in the U.S. with sons Nathan (14) and Japheth (10), he had seen his wife only once since 2013, when she fled Ethiopia to escape being arrested as a result of conflict among three competing ethnic groups, the Oromo, Amhara, and Tigray. Here in the U.S., he says, this conflict among the three groups is moot—”the three tribes worship together, no problem.” But back there at that time, the TPLF government (Tigray group in power at that time) tried to attack Meron’s father and arrest Meron when she wouldn’t relinquish her father’s family home. They ended up taking it by force, and her father had to move in with other family members.

Meron has since acquired her green card in this country, and Melaku and their children are on track to do so as well, with the ultimate goal of becoming U.S. citizens.

In his role at Redeemer Mercy Ministry, Melaku leads Bible studies on Saturday evenings from 6:00 to 8:00 in Zaki’s home and on Zoom in Amharic on Friday nights from 7:30 to 8:30, in addition to a YouTube ministry. He has a good relationship with the local Ethiopian church community and has preached numerous times in local churches in Lilburn and Stone Mountain as well as to more distant churches by Zoom, in Virginia and even Norway. He works with local churches to identify refugees in need of food from ROPC’s resources. And he recently started a counseling service for refugees via cell phone.

Looking ahead to the time post-pandemic when in-person Bible studies can again be held in ROPC’s rental unit at Brentwood Apartments in Decatur, Melaku has written a plan for Redeemer Mercy Ministry, which includes ESL classes. “Most refugees’ biggest problem is English,” he says. He wants to offer English tutoring using the Bible as a teaching tool, thereby pursuing two goals at once. And he has plans for a literature ministry, including producing a tract in Amharic with his contact information.

What are the ministry’s needs, going forward? “We need volunteers to teach English to adult refugees and prayer that Covid 19 would go away and in-person activities would resume.”