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The Diaconal Summit

Patricia E. Clawson

For the first time in the history of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church deacons from OP churches across the continent gathered this week in Wheaton, Illinois, for a denominational conference. Ministers and elders often know each other from presbytery or General Assembly meetings and some deacons meet others in presbyterial diaconal conferences. This, however, appears to be the first time ordained deacons gathered in one room for a denomination-wide, three-day Diaconal Summit.

Airport busloads of deacons, plus some elders and ministers, came from homes as far away as Alaska to Wheaton College Thursday afternoon, June 3, to begin a journey that the Committee on Diaconal Ministries first considered more than two and a half years ago. The committee thought it would be good if 100 men showed up. More than 220 came. A photo album is available with pictures sent in from several different sources, including DART Photography.

David Nakala, a CDM member, welcomed the men. “Our idea for the summit was that it would be interactive,” Nakala told the audience Thursday night. “A lot of deacons don’t know other deacons in their presbytery. We want you guys to meet each other and discuss things. You’re going to find that other deacons have the same issues you do.”

Nakala encouraged the men to get to know other deacons in their presbytery and the members of the CDM. “Diaconal work is tough. It’s messy,” said Nakala. “But that’s what God has called our deacons to do. Our hope is that you walk away from the conference encouraged in your calling, empowered in your calling.”

David Haney, a CDM member, spoke of how he was thrust into relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina five years ago when he was confronted with numerous offers to help. He was reminded again of how ready the deacons were to serve the church after the devastating earthquakes in Haiti, sharing that he has a couple hundred names of ready volunteers on his computer.

Haney introduced the conference’s main speaker, Dr. Brian Fikkert, who, like Haney, is a son of an OP pastor in Wisconsin. Fikkert is an associate professor of economics and the executive director of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.

As Fikkert towered over the audience upon standing to speak, he first answered the question that was on everyone’s mind: Just how tall is Brian? “Six feet ten inches,” he answered to laughter. Then he began his talk about how to help poor people without hurting them or yourself.

Fikkert said Jesus Christ came to declare the good news of the kingdom of God. Christ authenticated his message with his actions by preaching the word and by touching the leper.

One problem deacons often face when trying to help the poor who walk through the church doors seeking help is that people define poverty differently—a huge problem. Most middle and upper class Americans think of poverty in material terms, not having food or shelter or a job. The poor, on the other hand, often think of poverty in psychological and social terms—such as feeling shame, said Fikkert.

Poverty affects relationships—between the person and God, the person and others, the person and himself, and the person and creation. In addition to the materially poor, many other Americans also have broken relationships with God, others, themselves, and creation. This means that poverty is rooted in broken relationships, something both the materially poor and the financially comfortable experience.

“We are all poor—suffering broken relationships with God and others,” said Fikkert. “Until we embrace this, our attempts to help the ‘materially poor’ are likely to hurt them and ourselves. Good intentions are not enough.”

Fikkert warned that the way we speak and act tends to communicate to the materially poor that “you need me to save you.” This puts deacons in a position of superiority, he said.

Fikkert ended the evening by defining what needs to be done to alleviate poverty: “Poverty alleviation is about reconciling relations: a process in which people—both the materially poor and ourselves—move closer to living in right relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation.”

The men pondered Fikkert’s points as they headed back to Fischer’s Hall for the night. The conference continued through Saturday.

If you have not done so, you may want to read Part 2 of this article article.

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