Reflections on Branches UMC in Florida City, FL
The Wesley Fellowship at Duke, of which I am fortunate to serve as an intern from the Divinity School, took a small, but strong, group to Branches UMC in Florida City, FL this past week for a winter break trip.
Branches UMC is a United Methodist Church in Florida City, FL (about an hour south of Miami, right next to Homestead). Most will remember the area in relation to Hurricane Andrew in 1992. To say that Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida is an extreme understatement. Homestead was pretty much wiped out. Ever since, Florida City, thanks to help from the US government, has had a rebirth of its economy. It’s impossible to fully grasp the amount of impact Hurrican Andrew had on the area without being there. Everything, in one way or another, reminds visitors of the devastation.
Branches UMC also houses a mission program within its walls, one of three Branches sites within South Florida. This mission program was our main focus throughout the past week.
For years now, Branches has provided an after school tutoring program for the community’s children. They tutor every child, help them with homework, pick them up from school, and act as a bit of a liason between the church, the schools, and the community. It’s an incredible witness to the community because it is a place free of gang violence, drugs, and other issues. It’s a large undertaking for such a task, but the staff and volunteers at Branches are there every day, rain or fire, to minister to this community.
As you’re probably aware, South Florida is ethnically diverse. While English is still the “main language,” nearly everyone is somewhat bilingual and many businesses operate almost completely in Spanish if at all possible. But it’s not just, English or Spanish, White or Latino, or Latino or Black either. These generalizations do little good. There are Cubans, Hondurians, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Haitians, as well as a representation from every race, country, and nationality. These people are different than those they see around them and they’re conscious of this fact.
Because of this, the large collection of ‘illegal immigrants’ (more on that term another time), the extreme poverty, and other aspects such as weather and climate, South Florida is a type of place that you may not be used to in any way. As a white male, though I grew up in Florida, I was very underprepared.
But it’s not just race. It’s also class. There are the extreme rich (though most of them live closer to Miami). There are the extreme poor (many live 10 to a small house). There are those who run their own bakeries (and there are some really good ones), and there are those who can’t find work. There are skilled day laborers that stand on the street waiting to see if there will be any work for the day (and their stories will bring tears to your eyes), and there are those who drive fancy cars and have season tickets for the Heat. Perhaps our whole world deals with these issues of class, etc, but the racial tensions within South Florida seem to make the problem even more…real.
To make it one step worse (or perhaps in some ways…better) the church burned in 2010.
The whole church, more or less, went up in fire, destroying everything.
And here’s where I’d like to dwell for a moment.
Obviously, the fire is a defining moment in the church’s history. But not because it changed them. I see it as definining because of the way they reacted. From the morning after the fire the pastor, Audrey Warren, stood before the communion table and said, “Don’t come for communion if you are unwilling to forgive whoever has done this.” Imagine the rage in your heart if everything you had worked for had been burned. Now imagine a complete and utter message of immediate forgiveness. I think that’s what Jesus used to speak about.
This church sings songs with lyrics like “out of the ashes we rise,” “you fail us not,” and “you’re bigger than the battle,” in ways that I could never dream to.
They begin worship with the call, “God is Bigger” and respond, “All the time.”
Because God is bigger than a fire. God is bigger than lost computers, guitars, and desks.
And they recognized that. Immediately.
Because they’re here, for a purpose, and are working to do whatever they can to make some sort of difference. Because it doesn’t matter if the parents have ‘papers’ or not…these kids are in school. Because the Gospel matters just as much in this church as it does in any other place in the world.
There was a fire. It happened.
But that wasn’t so important. That moment when a child’s face lights up because he finally understood it was important. That moment when they came together as a community over a campfire to sing songs about making beautiful things out of the dust was important. That moment when they welcomed strangers on their staff retreat so that they could learn just a little bit more about what they do was important.
Branches is a family. A family of Americorp workers. A family of staffers. A family of volunteers. A family of college kids just trying to have eyes opened toward the work of the Church and future of the Gospel. A family of ministers and those in need of that ministry.
It’s an amazing place and you ought to go.