UM pastor runs to General Conference for orphans

Rev. Wayne Lavender running across country to promote the plight of orphans and vulnerable children.

Rev. Wayne Lavender running across country to promote the plight of orphans and vulnerable children.

When the delegates and attendees arrive in Portland, OR next week to attend the 2016 United Methodist General Conference they will have come from all over the world, with many long journeys over great distances. However for one General Conference attendee the journey has been even longer and more personal as he carried out his goal of walking and running from his home in Virginia to Portland as a way of demonstrating his belief that the United Methodist Church must take the plight of orphans and vulnerable children on as the church’s primary missional focus.

For the past five months the Rev. Wayne Lavender has been on a journey across America by foot and car to raise awareness of the needs of vulnerable children throughout the world. A week away from the start of the General Conference, Lavender is about 200 miles outside of Portland, some 2,700 miles since he put his foot in the ocean Atlantic Ocean near his Virginia Beach home. Around 1,800 miles of that trip has been made on foot — 1000 miles running and 800 miles walking.

Along the way Lavender, the director of Foundation 4 Orphans, has met with churches and groups throughout the country to talk about his passion for the needs of orphans and vulnerable children and his hope that the General Conference will embrace his petition to make helping these children a focus of the church’s mission.

“If no one stands up for the children then they will continue to die at an alarming rate,” Lavender says. “These children are voiceless — they have no advocacy groups.”

WayneChild_550Lavender came to his current ministry after a trip to an orphanage in Mozambique in 1998. “It was an orphanage that had no running water,” he says. “It had no access to schools or health care. It touched my heart in a way that I can’t describe. I have read about extreme poverty all my life, but until I saw it with my own eyes I couldn’t really understand it.”

That experience led Lavender to get his Ph.D in public policy and then to found Foundation 4 Orphans, an organization dedicated to addressing the needs of orphans and vulnerable children throughout the world. Their work today is focused today in Mozambique and Iraq, but the group has plans to reach out to other areas of need in the future.

Lavender’s passion for helping orphans is deeply rooted in his Wesleyan faith experience. “Thirty separate times the Bible tells us to care for orphans,” Lavender said. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in distress…” he quotes from James 1:27. Lavender notes that John Wesley cared for orphans in Great Britain and encouraged others to do the same. Wesley wrote in a letter to George Whitefield in 1770: “Can anything on earth be greater charity than to bring up orphans?”

As Lavender looked at The United Methodist Church (and the General Conference that is to come) Lavender believed that a rekindling of the passion to care for orphans could a means for transformation for the church. He recognized the on-going divisions in the UMC which, he believed, continue to contribute to the church’s decline in the U.S. He believed that uniting around a single missional priority – orphans – could transcend the divisions and provide a unified theme upon which all could agree.

“Let us unite around a central missional priority, something everyone can agree on” he wrote. “Obviously we will not agree on sexual identity issues, gun control, health care, the Iranian nuclear deal, global climate change nor who could be the next president of the United States. What we can agree on, however, is the caring for orphans and vulnerable children, Placing orphans and vulnerable children at the center of our missional efforts will not only enable us to do much good for these children, it can be the glue to bring together members of our disparate connexion.”

This belief led Lavender to submit a petition to the General Conference which proposes that the UMC place ministry with orphans and vulnerable children at the center of the church’s work together. Under Lavender’s proposal, which would amend the church’s current missional priority, the current Four Areas of Focus would feed into this central missional focus. He likewise proposes a campaign to raise $1 billion in 2019 (the year in which the church celebrates the bi-centennial of the founding of the Methodist Missionary Society).

Lavender was thinking about his vision on a run when the idea struck to run across the U.S. from Virginia Beach to Portland as a means of bringing awareness and support to orphans and vulnerable children. With the support of his board of directors, Lavender left on January 1 along with a church volunteer who drives and helps with logistics along the way.

Nearing the end of his trip, Lavender has found the experience to be spiritually enlightening. “There have been times when I’m running where I have just felt enveloped in God’s presence,” he said. “Those have been very special moments.”

As Lavender has visited churches along the way, he has been struck by the demographic trends in most United Methodist Churchs. “To see the age of the average attendee in the UMC has been an eye opener,” he said. “I am often the youngest person in the room and I am now 58. That is disturbing.”

But he acknowledges the many kindnesses he’s been shown throughout his journey by church folk. “I’ve have experienced the grace, kindness, love and support of people I have met and their deep desire to turn the denomination around. There are many folks out there who really love the UMC and are deeply saddened to see our ongoing decline.”

Lavender is scheduled to arrive in Portland this Saturday, May 7. He will be meeting with delegates and groups to promote his proposal throughout the two weeks of the General Conference.

For more information on the Foundation 4 Orphans visit http://www.f4o.org/.

Click here to view a copy of the Lavender petition.

Click here to view Lavender’s position paper on the petition.

Jay Voorhees, Former Executive Editor

The Rev. Jay Voorhees is the Executive Editor of The United Methodist Reporter and the Chief Creative Officer for CircuitWriter Media LLC which operates this site and MethoBlog.com. Jay is an ordained elder in the Tennessee Annual Conference. Jay has written on life and the practice of faith in The United Methodist Church at Only Wonder Understands since 2003.

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