You would not expect the Mississippi Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church to be a life-enhancing experience. Unless you knew anything about what is going on here. Mississippi is dead last in almost any health statistic in the any book, although they swear they have edged up ahead of West Virginia in a few categories. And it is true here as in most places that United Methodist clergy have been about 20% heavier than their lay members of the same age (not easy to do in the South!). Not encouraging for health folks.
So it is, well, amazing, that this is the Conference that has become best example of Wesleyan tradition in integrated health and faith since Wesley got on a horse. And the most visible signal of what is working is the Amazing Pace program, which builds a very smart and comprehensive wellness emphasis focused on the simplest of all things, walking.
Hundreds of Mississippi clergy wear their uploadable pedometers religiously, to use exactly the right word. In the past several years they have walked just over 2 million miles(including a couple around the state capitol early saturday morning). It is not a coincidence that the clergy health insurance plan has not had to have a rate increase in those four years and even returned a million dollars from their reserve fund into the pension fund — because the hard claim data indicated that fundamental usage patterns had changed. This has happened in the years of recovering from the still-lingering trauma of Katrina when you would expect the opposite.
Some would think it would take all kinds of draconian threats, humiliation and massive incentives to achieve changes like that. And there are some minor incentives that will actually return some cash to participants if they meet the goals of 10,000 steps each month. But the main incentive is visible, verifiable improvement in health, energy and sense of possibility that is visible in the lives of each other. Oh, and, being religion, competition. The program tracks and makes visible who is walking how far in terms of individuals, but also teams from Districts. It is considerably more fiercely watched than church basketball (which makes rugby seem civilized). People encourage each other and not just the svelte and fit. Many of the leaders are traditionally shaped, but getting fitter and fitter.
We see this because Methodist Healthcare offers free health screening, which we’ve done for a couple decades. In the past few years we’ve been delighted to lend our support to the Amazing Pace (including sponsoring that walk in what feels like the middle of the night!). Our volunteers, almost all retired employees, do blood work and then counseling for a bit over 300 people each year. They tell the truth, inform and encourage people to take their own lives in the right direction. And many do. Year after year after year. Amazing.
All this health stuff is like a positive whirlwind that translates quite directly into energy that is felt on the floor of Conference itself. It helps that Bishop Hope Morgan Ward is the embodiment of all things alive and well in the Church–and that she is such a gracious messenger for Life. So the hundreds of pedometers carried by clergy on the move resonate with the Word from leaders.
So the songs of hope, grace and possibility all make sense; the prayers for healing are seen to be in the process of being answered. It is not delusional to hope–just look around. The Spirit moves and moves and moves.
It is still Mississippi so much of the mean and savage past remains visible, too. Faulkner noted that the problem with history is that it is not in the past. Race, gender, sex, privilege and power are all remain fiercely contested. The Bishop is regularly flogged because she gave the microphone to a lesbian couple two years ago. But just a few booths down from the Methodist Healthcare health fair is DREAM: “daring to reconcile and embrace all in Mississippi”(blogging at http://www.dreams.word press.com).
Steps and then more steps. You show up and start walking. Things happen you had given up hoping for.
I’ve been thinking again about Nathan Wolfe’s observation that viruses live because they are able to “generate novelty.” And the way they do that is to share their DNA in wildly unpredictable ways. They are generous with their essence, so things happen that would never be possible if change depended on each individual virus tweaking and scheming.
Human communities that learn to be generous with their essence generate novelty that allows life to find a way. Lee Burdine is the brain and spirit behind Amazing Pace. He is quick to deflect credit and he is correct in seeing the amazing changes involving many people who are generously contributing to the emergence of novelty. But he is generous with his essence, gracious and tenacious in the Mississippi way I have to respect. Not one, but ten thousand steps at a time. Amazing.
– Posted on the journey `